State secrets get leaked on the Internet and left in cabs. But many of America's favorite foods are guarded like national treasures. Recipes are the stuff of corporate wars and family friction.
Thomas' English Muffins was in the spotlight when Chris Botticella, one of the seven people who know how the muffins get their trademark nooks and crannies, left the company to join a rival bakery that had allegedly tried to crack the muffin code. According to The New York Times, Bimbo Bakeries USA, which brought the Thomas' brand early last year, obtained a federal court order barring the move, and late last month an appeals panel in Pennsylvania upheld the order.
Reportedly, the cloak of secrecy is thick in muffin land. Recipe manuals are called code books. Valuable information is compartmentalized to keep it from rising out. Corporate officials speak of sharing information on a "need-to-know-basis".
Food is also the ingredient for family feuds. Ralphie Palumbo served sister Marcia Johnson with paperwork demanding she stop selling a menu item called the "Theo Burger" at her eatery Marcia's Takeout that's less than a mile from his Palumbo's Take Out. Both claim to have once worked at Theo's, in Somersworth, New Hampshire, as did their mother.
Palumbo started his own place and began cooking the Theo Burger in March of 1971. He named the sandwich after Theo Spence, the owner of Theo's. He claims his recipe, featuring sautéed onions and certain herbs and spices, is the true Theo Burger. According to the Boston Herald, Palumbo shared the partial recipe with his sister in 2003 after he became seriously ill, in order to preserve it in case he died.
After serving jail time, he restarted his business in 2006 and has been directly competing with Johnson since then. Johnson, claims she stole nothing, and that unknown to Palumbo, their mother had already told her the recipe and there were five or more people who also know the recipe. Only earlier this month did Palumbo register the sandwich's name as his trademark.
Similarly, the secret sauce is the center of the Packo family dispute. The original, handwritten recipe for the sauce that dresses the Packo hot dogs, according to the Toledo Blade, is said to remain locked in a safe deposit box, along with a can of hot dog sauce that flew aboard a U.S. space shuttle.
Knowledge and control of the classified ingredients might become a valuable asset in the ongoing dispute between descendants of Tony Packo, Sr., that's playing out in court. The special sauce is a specific blend of spices used to season the meat in the Packo's "Hungarian" hot dog sauce. The blend dates back nearly 80 years, when Packo opened the first restaurant. Packo passed the recipe to his daughter Nancy Packo Horvath, who then gave it to her younger brother, Tony Packo, Jr. Next to know was Horvath's son, Robin Horvath, who is now the firm's chief operating officer and its co-owner with Tony Packo, Jr.
The men are locked in a bitter legal dispute, and a Lucas County Common Pleas judge last week appointed a receiver to oversee the business. The receiver, Ottawa Hills resident Steve Skutch, was named after Fifth Third Bank filed a foreclosure action over missed payments on its $4 million in loans, of which $2.7 million is owed.