It would be logical to assume that processed cheese, or American cheese was Kraft’s first innovation. However, we see a glimpse of the brilliance of individually wrapped cheese singles much further back in the history of the company. When James L. Kraft, and immigrant from Ontario, Canada, first began selling cheese on the streets of Chicago, in 1903, he and other cheese peddlers would haul around huge wheels or blocks of cheese in horse-drawn wagons, and would weigh out and wrap individual pieces of cheese according to what the customer wanted. This was a time consuming process for both customer and vendor. So, Kraft’s first big idea was to portion and wrap pieces of cheese in advance and sell them in standard units. A much quicker process and a harbinger of what was to come, since customers were ready to accept pre-packaged and pre-weighed foods, a more convenient way to buy, even though there was less choice.
Kraft’s business did not get off to a flying start. He had spent all his money, $65, on the horse, wagon, and cheese to sell. In his first year, he lost his horse, along with $3000. It was perseverance and ingenuity which saw him through. Some would say, however, that it was clever marketing of inferior products. Whatever the case, the company and its products, including the flagship Kraft single, without which an American cheeseburger would not really be the same, are a iconic fixture.
Processed cheese, however, did not begin as a solid product. After Kraft’s brothers joined his company, they quickly grew the company and incorporated it as Kraft & Bros (later to become Kraft Foods, Inc.) in 1909. By 1914 they were operating out of a plant and making 31 different types of cheese, and in 1915 they began to package their cheeses in tins.
In those days, there was a great deal of waste in the cheese industry. Cheese was made in huge wheels and then sold to customers in wedges. As the cheese aged, the area that were cut into dried out and formed a hard crust, which has to be cut off. Large amounts of cheese was lost this way.
Seeking to extend the shelf-life of packaged cheeses, it was in 1916 that Kraft developed their first processed cheese product. It was a homogenized blend of natural cheese, emulsifiers, salt, and food coloring. Kraft ground down natural cheese blended it with the other ingredients and pasteurized it. This product had a longer shelf life, and other functional benefits.
It was the homogenization process that enabled the cheese to withstand the high temperature required for pasteurization. Kraft filed for and received a patent for this product in 1916. His patent, “A Process Process of sterilizing cheese and an improved product produced by such process,” described the invention as follows:
This invention relates to an improved process of sterilizing cheese to render it permanently keeping, and to the-product thereby produced.
The chief object of the invention is to convert cheese of the Cheddar genus into such condition that it may be kept indefinitely without spoiling, under conditions which would ordinarily cause it to spoil, and to accomplish this result without substantially impairing the taste of the cheese. Incidentally, the process has a marked value in that it has the effect of .permanently arresting-the curing or flavors development of the cheese, from which it follows that the cheese may be brought to the precise stage of ripening desired and then permanently arrested and kept in that stage or condition until consumed.
It is common knowledge that various food products may be sterilized by the application of heat and then hermetically sealed under sterilized conditions and ‘so rendered permanently keeping. But the attempt to apply such treatment to cheese of the Cheddar genus has invariably resulted in failure, so far as rendering the product permanently keeping is concerned.
It is a well known fact that cheese of the Cheddar genus cannot be heated to a temperature much above its melting point with out disintegrating and permanently losing its true cheesy character. That is to say, the melted cheese becomes stringy and the casein and fats. separate cannot be returned to their original combined true cheese form 1 and homogeneous condition. For this reason genus has not been produced prior to my discovery.
By the end of 1916, the company was selling the processed cheese in 4-ounce cans, principally to the U.S. military for use in the war effort (World War I). As is often the case with food products introduced to the military, the soldiers, having grown used to the processed cheese during the war, returned home and become processed cheese customers, helping to popularize the product. It was not until much later, however, that American processed cheese came in individual slices.
In reality, Kraft was not the first company to make a processed cheese. There were other companies making “potted cheeses.” Kraft was simply the first to patent its product. Another such company, Phenix Cheese Company, formed around 1880, had also been making processed cheese, and were the makers of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Kraft initially clashed with the company over rights, but settled in 1917. Later, in 1928, Kraft merged with this company. The two companies together soon controlled much of the U.S. cheese market. By 1931 there were Kraft-Phenix cheese plants in 31 states and more plants overseas. The company produced over a million pounds of cheese a day, and Americans began consuming much more cheese in general.
At this time the company was bought by National Dairy Products Company.
Velveeta cheese came out in the 1930’s. A semi-solid block of cheddar-based processed cheese marketed as “cheese food.” Velveeta was soft enough at room temperature (presumably firmer in those days when cold) to be sliced as easily as butter, and then melted on top of anything, or blended easily into sauces. Velveeta was also available with pimentos. A recipe book came with bricks of Velveeta with suggestions for recipes such as macaroni and cheese make with Velveeta (Macaroni and Velveeta), Velveeta pudding, and Velveeta stuffed prunes.
Old English Cheese spread, Smo-Kay, and Relish cheese were other products using processed cheese. Kraft also marketed products meant to appeal to old-world immigrants, but without the “old world stink” of traditional cheeses such as a Limburger that had no odor. This, culturally, fit in with the desire of immigrants to have the products of home while still assimilating into the larger culture.
Introduction of Kraft Singles
The quintessential Kraft product, individual slices of processed cheese that could be plunked down on a sandwich with no mess or fuss, were introduced in 1950. They were called Kraft Deluxe Process Slices or just Kraft Deluxe Slices. In order to make processed cheese, which initially came in a semi-liquid form in tins, and then in blocks as in Velveeta, the cheese was rolled through a mill into a 3-inch ribbon, and then the congealed ribbon was cut into 3-inch squares. The company was already quite diversified, selling salad dressing and oleomargarine.
If you’ve ever purchased processed cheese slices that are not individually wrapped, such as the modern Kraft “Deli” slices, you will know it is sometimes tricky to separate the slices (even though the company now slightly staggers the slices). They would appear almost as a single block. Customers at first didn’t understand that they would pull apart. Store managers had to actually show their customers that they were indeed slices. Even so, once a package had been opened and some slices used, it was not easy to keep the remaining cheese from drying out.
Plastic film was needed to solve this problem, and it took until around 1965. Kraft individually wrapped singles were introduced around 1965. Not only was it easier to grab one slice, but the other slices would stay fresh for a very long time.
Although his brothers remained operating officers, James Kraft had retired as director of the holding company in 1948.