Aug. 25, 2010 -- 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.
In Dogged Pursuit of Recipe
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.
All this fuss over food of course, comes down to money. What separates a company from its competitors? What's the value of a brand? The answer could be mega-millions. Companies have stopped at precious little to protect their secrets. Coca-Cola, for example, chose not to patent its recipe because patent information becomes public 20 years after filing. The formula is said to be stowed in an Atlanta bank vault.
Then there's the Colonel. Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC if you will, still allegedly uses his original, hand-written list of 11 herbs and spices. When the company updated its headquarters two years ago, reporters got a rare peek. Reportedly, the ingredient list is kept in a computerized vault with two separate locks, alongside vials of the 11 seasonings, and only two executives have access to the full recipe.
The distinctive Dr. Pepper taste remains unique 125 years later. Only three people know the 23 flavors that make up the soft drink. "We keep the Dr. Pepper recipe secure in a vault in the state-of-the art Beverage Innovation Center. The room is under 24-hour video surveillance and only one person in the world has access to this room," says Jason Genthner, a company spokesperson. "The recipe has been a mystery for more than a century as fans and competitors have unsuccessfully attempted to identify individual tastes."
Al Yeganeh, The Original SoupMan, also known as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, who has since launched The Original SoupMan restaurants and his own line of premium, gourmet, "heat-n-serve" soups, will not divulge any information on his soups. He does say this though: "They are the best in the world."
He keeps his secrets secret by never saying how much of a specific item is included in the mixture, therefore keeping competitors at bay when it comes to copying the recipe. He is limited in disclosing or even releasing recipes and when he does, there will only be a general list of ingredients provided.
Kathy Casey, one the first female executive chefs and owner of Kathy Casey Food Studios-Liquid Kitchen, works with many household name food companies. She describes the industry's culture of secrecy.
"Everybody is protective, especially if it's something new or innovative. Projects have code names. When something is in development any notes you take must be shredded. Everything is locked up. Computers are password protected. There are confidentiality agreements. Some companies don't even want it known that we are working with them."