Canadian farmer's son solves age-old storage problems by melting cheese


“The old way of selling cheese unpackaged will meet the same fate as the flour bin and the oat barrel,” said a 1920 Kraft ad. “Here's a better, more palatable cheese, sold in airtight, hygienic, and inexpensive cans.

Canned cheese packaging is considered one of the most important advances in the science of hygienic food distribution. The cans can be stored in any climate.

The nutritional value of one can is equivalent to about one and a half kilograms of beef.' In those days, Kraft already offered eight varieties: cheddar, pimento (with fine red peppers), chile (with green chilies), rarebit (prepared with eggs), camembert, swiss, roquefort and limburger (with the sharp taste of stinky cheese, but without the annoying smell).

Easy to spread. And whoever liked it harder had to put the can in the fridge first.

Three years earlier, James Lewis Kraft and his brothers had founded a limited liability company with a capital of 150,000 dollars and a turnover of 2 million dollars. In 1923, sales were $22 million.

In 1928 he owned cheese factories in thirty American states and in Canada, England and Germany, he employed 10,000 men and sold half a million kilograms of cheese a day.

The Kraft name became a global brand, a familiar word on packaging for cheese, mayonnaise, Philadelphia cheese and Miracoli pasta.

When the Philip-Morris group swallowed Kraft General Foods in 1988, it paid $12.9 billion, four times its fair value, that's how important the brand name had become. But who was 'Jim' Kraft?

With horse and cart

Kraft was born in 1874 to George Franklin Krafft and Minerva Alice Tripp in Fort Erie, Canada, a village on Lake Erie. It's unclear when Jim left out the second 'f' in his name. His parents were poor Mennonite farmers, descendants of German immigrants.

Jim was the second of eleven children.

From his youth he would later mainly remember that he suffered from an indistinct eye ailment, which no one cared about, but which gave him fierce headaches every day.

And that he had a very strict mother who used to tap her children viciously on the head with the stump of a mutilated finger.

He worked for many years, intermittently, as an errand boy for a local grocer, studying commercial science in Buffalo, on the American side of Lake Erie.

He invested in a cheese firm in Buffalo, moved to Chicago to oversee the firm's Midwestern branch, and was subsequently evicted by his associates. That was the moment - in 1904, Kraft was then 30 - when he decided to distribute cheese on his own account.

For $65, he bought a cart and a horse named Paddy, and wandered from one grocer to another in Chicago to convince them that they could trust his cheese, which he had, incidentally, bought on the credit of a friendly wholesaler.


raft remembered how the women in Fort Erie sniffed at a cheese before buying it.

Later he would say, "No housewife in her right mind bought cheese without having tasted it." Cheese in those years varied greatly in quality and taste and spoiled quickly. Sellers had to permanently remove the dry corners and dispose of them as trash.

In some areas of the United States, cheese production and sales were temporarily halted due to rapid summer spoilage. Consumption per inhabitant was barely a pound a year.

Melted cheese

Kraft started selling cheese in small pieces that he packed in glass jars or foil.

In between, he worked in his kitchen, simply in a cooking pot on a wood stove, on a cheese that had a better shelf life, remained uniform in quality, had a taste that met the wishes of the American palate and of which as little as possible was lost in distribution and consumption. went.

Kraft ground, blended and pasteurized. For years.

When heated, the cheese disintegrated into oils and solid particles: that was the main problem. Until he discovered that by stirring very quickly you could prevent the disintegration. In that first year, 1904, Kraft lost $3,000 and his horse, but he persevered and recovered.

By 1906 he brought his new storage cheese (process cheese) on the market. Two of his brothers – later there were seven – joined him and together they formed the JL Kraft Brothers and Company in 1909. In 1909, at the age of 35, he married Pauline Platt of Chicago.

They had a daughter. His US passport is dated 1911.

In 1915 he came up with the bright idea of packaging his cheese in cans of 120 grams, an invention for which he obtained a patent in 1916. Sales rose from $5,000 to $150,000 that year.

The US military, which became involved in World War I in 1917, bought no less than six million tons of highly storable Kraft cheese for the journey to Europe. The advance of the company was unstoppable. The stunt from 1921 was just as brilliant as the cans idea.

Kraft marketed five-pound blocks of processed cheese, wrapped in foil and packed in typical rectangular crates, intended for domestic use. A month later, he had to have 15,000 crates a day hammered to meet the demand.

Both in the United States and in Europe (after 1927) they became extremely popular as storage boxes. Kraft gave his first lesson in reusable packaging. The 1928 takeover of Philadelphia cheese, expansion into the salad dressing market, and early margarine production.

Kraft himself witnessed, in 1947, how his five-pound pre-cut blocks came to market. The disc packaging did not follow until 1965. In 1948, aged 74, he retired as director of the holding company and in 1951 he retired from the board of directors of Kraft Foods.

He died on February 16, 1953.

By the time he arrived in Chicago in 1903, he had joined the Baptist church. He would remain very active in it throughout his life as a layman: Sunday School coordinator, member of the board of deacons, seminary director, and so on.

He was also a great collector of jade, about which he also published a standard work in 1947. He is considered the discoverer of American jade.

Kraft had another strange hobby: he loved to design and manufacture rings himself.

For years, while the workforce remained manageable, he appreciated gifting his most deserving employees such a homemade ring as an award.