Whether it's a favorite dessert, a secret sauce or a tasty brew, recipes that have been passed down for generations are cherished by many families who are committed to keeping them alive. While many cooks revel in their signature dishes by recreating them for every special occasion, others profit from their recipes by selling their dishes at farmer's markets, blogging about them, entering contests or selling their secrets to cooking sites or to magazines and cookbooks.
Here are some of the most popular brands in the world today — some cooked up by accident, and others by foodies with an appetite for success.
In the late 1860s, Edmund McIlhenny, a food lover and avid gardener living in Avery Island, Louisiana, was determined to create a spicy sauce to add flavor to his food. Given pepper seeds from Central America or Mexico, he planted them and was excited when he discovered they bore the spicy flavor he was searching for. Crushing the peppers, he mixed them with Avery Island salt and aged this "mash" for 30 days in jars and barrels. McIlhenny then blended the mash with French white wine vinegar and aged the mixture for another 30 days. He then strained it and transferred the sauce to small bottles, which he then corked and sealed in green wax. His pepper sauce became so popular with family and friends, he began marketing it as Tabasco, a word of Mexican Indian origin believed to mean "a place where the soil is humid." Soon after, the family-owned McIllenny Co. was born.
Now, 140 years and five generations later, Tabasco is still being made on Avery Island and is labeled in 22 languages and dialects and sold in more than 180 countries and territories around the globe. Although its CEO, Tony Simmons, the great-great-grandson of Tabasco founder Edmund McIlhenny, won't discuss sales figures, it's been reported that the company sells about $200 million worth of its pepper sauce annually.
Tennessee-based Bush Brothers & Co. was founded by A. J. Bush in the 1920s as a tomato cannery. Yet it wasn't until the 1970s that the company hit its stride. That was when A.J.'s grandson, Condon — realizing how popular baked beans were in the Northeast — decided to add baked beans to its product line using his mother's baked bean recipe.
Almost immediately, sales started to take off, inspiring the company to introduce additional other "table-ready" items. It was those baked beans, however, that would ultimately prove to be the company's biggest success, transforming it into a national brand presence.
Bush Brothers and Co. is privately held and thus does not disclose sales figures, but according to SymphonyIRI Group, it led the baked bean category in 2012 (the latest data available) with about $365 million in sales, followed by Conagra Foods, which hit $80 million in sales.
When Ruth Graves Wakefield and her husband, Ken, opened the Toll House Inn in 1930, it quickly became a local favorite. Located in Whitman, Massachusetts, on the road between Boston and Cape Cod, it was a place where people from all over New England would gather to enjoy Ruth's cooking, especially her desserts. (In fact, it's often said that Joseph Kennedy Sr. dropped by frequently for her Boston cream pie, and Rose Kennedy had the inn send weekly care packages to her sons overseas during World War II.)
In 1936, Ruth chopped up a bar of Nestlé Semi-Sweet chocolate and added it to her dough, expecting the chocolate to melt. Instead what she found was that the morsels held their shape. After her recipe was published in Boston-area newspapers, sales of the Nestle Semi-Sweet Chocolate Bar skyrocketed. Eventually, Ruth negotiated with Nestlé to print her recipe on their wrapper, calling it the Toll House Cookie Recipe. Although she did not receive millions for her recipe, she did receive a lifetime supply of Nestlé chocolate.
In 1865 Susannah Oland sailed from England with her nine children to meet her husband in Nova Scotia. She brought with her all her belongings, including her personal recipe for brown October ale. Susannah began brewing her beer in her backyard and, shortly after, opened The Army and Navy Brewery in the city of Dartmouth. Soon her household classic became a household name in Halifax.
Surviving two devastating fires, Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars, obstructive trade barriers and competition from breweries 100 times its size, the brewery — what has now become Moosehead Breweries, located in St. John — is under the leadership of the sixth generation of Olands and is Canada's oldest and largest independent brewery.
Susannah's Moosehead brand is now sold throughout Canada, the United States and in 15 countries around the globe.
In 1927 Dorothy Gerber, following the advice of her pediatrician, started straining solid foods for her seven-month-old daughter. After doing this a few times, Dorothy suggested that her husband try it. He did, then noted that the arduous process could be more easily accomplished if he were to do it at his family canning business in Fremont, Michigan. Soon workers at the plant began requesting samples for their own babies.
A year later Gerber Baby Foods was born, becoming the first baby food to be sold in grocery stores and advertised nationally. Swiss-based food company Nestlé S.A. acquired Gerber in September 2007. It is now the leading maker of baby food in a global market expected to top $72 billion in 2020.
The name Harland David Sanders is synonymous with fried chicken. Born poor in 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, Sanders was forced to cook for his siblings when his father died. After dropping out of school in the sixth grade and lying about his age to join the army at 16, he had years of failed ventures — until in 1930, at age 40, he took his life's savings and opened a Shell Oil Station in Kentucky and decided to serve food.
Word spread about his delicious fried chicken, and his business became so popular that the governor of Kentucky designated him a Kentucky colonel. Eventually, at 65, Sanders focused on franchising his fried chicken business under around the country under the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. By 1963 he had 600 franchises. The Colonel sold it for $2 million in 1964 and by 1971 KFC was worth $285 million.
Sanders died in 1980, leaving much of his wealth to charity. His secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices has been locked in a Kentucky vault for seven decades.
In 1980 Paul Newman and his friend A. E. Hotchner poured his homemade salad dressing into empty wine bottles to give away as holiday gifts. When friends and neighbors began requesting refills, Paul and "Hotch" were convinced the salad dressing was good enough to be marketed. Two years later, in 1982, Newman's Own Salad Dressing was launched. According to Newman, the first year of profits exceeded $300,000. Yet rather than keep it, he donated 100 percent of the profits and royalties to charity.
The following year, Newman's Own Pasta Sauce was introduced, followed by lemonade, microwave popcorn, salsa and frozen pizza, insisting always on all-natural food products from his own recipes. By 1992, a decade after the first product sold, more than $50 million had been given away.
In 2005, Paul established the Newman's Own Foundation to ensure that the company's philanthropic outreach would continue. To date, more than $460 million has been contributed to nonprofit organizations worldwide.