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Heinz turns 150: From regional phenomenon to global concern

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A young Henry Heinz got his business start in Sharpsburg, hawking horseradish to local grocers before the Civil War. By the time the United States entered World War I, he was leading a Pittsburgh-based, multimillion-dollar international company.

The empire Henry John Heinz built marks its 150th anniversary this year, with events and special commemorations in Pittsburgh and around the world.

The son of German Lutheran immigrants “was wheeling things around in a wheelbarrow” and found that people loved what he was selling, said Andrew Masich, executive director of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Heinz attended Duff’s Mercantile College in Pittsburgh and was a bookkeeper at his father’s Sharpsburg brickyard. But he continued growing produce and making his own products, namely horseradish.

In 1869, he parlayed that early success selling food into founding Heinz, Noble & Co., or simply Heinz & Noble, first using the brand name Anchor Pickle and Vinegar Works. He was 25.

Four years later, the company had lines of sauerkraut, pickles, vinegar and horseradish. But it also fell victim to the Panic of 1873.

Heinz filed for bankruptcy and spent time in jail “because that’s the way they handled debtors in those days,” Masich said.

The experience cured Heinz of forming future partnerships, such as the one that soured with brothers Clarence and E.J. Noble.

By 1876, Heinz was back in the business – working with his cousin and brother, who had formed the F & J Heinz Co.

That same year, the company introduced Heinz Tomato Ketchup – similar to a fish sauce product the Chinese had made for 1,000 years. Heinz found a way to make it better, Masich said.

“That was his philosophy — to do a common thing, uncommonly well,” he said.

Heinz introduced concepts like refrigerated railcars, steam pressure cooking and vacuum-packed canning to preserve food longer. He also set his sights on expanding sales internationally.

In 1886, he traveled to England and cold-called at London’s famed Fortnum & Mason, which supplied groceries to the royal family and other well-heeled customers.

“I think, Mr. Heinz, we’ll take the lot!” the store’s grocery buyer told Heinz, purchasing all five cases he had of ketchup, baked beans, cream of tomato soup and other products, according to company history.

For its 150th anniversary, Heinz has partnered with Fortnum & Mason for a specially packaged, limited edition line of those same products.

In 1888, Heinz took sole ownership of the company, which he renamed H.J. Heinz.

“He never had a partner again,” Masich said. “He restored his reputation. He built this food empire that was on every continent, except Antarctica.”

By the time Heinz died in 1919, his company had more than 6,500 employees and 25 factories along with over 150 places around the country to collect cucumbers and tomatoes from farmers along with 85 salting stations to make pickles, according to company history.

In 2015, H.J. Heinz Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc. merged to combine some of the most iconic food brands in America — and the world — under Kraft Heinz, a new publicly traded company. Heinz entered the deal with reported sales of $10.9 billion the previous year, the Tribune-Review reported at the time.

The 150th anniversary of the founding of the classic Pittsburgh company is being celebrated at the Heinz History Center, which is home to the largest collection of Heinz artifacts and archival material in the world. This month at the museum is dubbed “Heinztoberfest,” which started last week with a 21+ Night and will continue Oct. 19 with a specially themed Hometown-Homegrown food festival, now in its eighth year.

As for Kraft Heinz, with headquarters in Pittsburgh and Chicago, the company gave away 75,000 gold pickle pins at the local Picklesburgh festival in July. Through Oct. 19, Heinz is involved in a special social media promotion for the 150th anniversary with another Pittsburgh food icon: Primanti Bros. restaurants.

“We’ve been serving Heinz ketchup since the beginning — in 1933,” Toni Haggerty, a Primanti’s sandwich shop employee for more than 40 years, said in a statement announcing the promotion. “From the original location all the way to our newest openings. It’s only Heinz. And that’s the way it’ll be for the next 150 years, too.”

The biggest project the company endeavored for its anniversary was partnering with British pop singer Ed Sheeran — a Heinz ketchup super-fan — for a television commercial and the launch of limited-edition bottles of “Edchup,” featuring a replica of a Heinz tattoo Sheeran has on his arm, said Michael Mullen, a Kraft Heinz spokesman.

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