Last week, the brand presented its latest: Old Bay Goldfishbecause putting the Maryland spice on real seafood just wasn’t enough.
Jill Pratt, chief marketing officer of Maryland-based McCormick, said the snack merger was a direct result of fan requests on social media who themselves had been pairing the two foods for years. Bags of the new crackers sold out online in nine hours, Pratt said.
“Over the past few years, people have shared their excitement about the possibility of OLD BAY collaborating with Goldfish,” she wrote in an email. “There was even a change.org petition created that demonstrates the passion of our fans when it comes to showing their dedication and love for OLD BAY.
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The roots of this love affair, and of the spice itself, go back decades – to a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and landed in Baltimore with his family and a spice mill.
Gustav Brunn, born in 1893, was a successful spice merchant in Wertheim, Germany, where he had specialized in sausage spices before the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s, after the Kristallnacht anti-Semitic attacks, he and his family fled to the United States. When Brunn struggled to find work in Baltimore, he decided to start his own spice business. He set up shop across from the Baltimore Wholesale Fish Market on the Inner Harbor, and the Baltimore Spice Company was born.
At first, Brunn only sold individual ingredients such as red pepper, celery seed and mustard. But over time, he noticed that fish market vendors – many of whom steamed crabs – were using their own spice blends. Brunn thought he could make a better one.
Brunn’s son Ralph, who still lives in the Baltimore area, said his father was required by law to publish the ingredients for his seasoning. To make the recipe more complex, Gustav Brunn decided to add very small amounts of ingredients that “would have nothing to do with steaming crabs”, said Ralph Brunn, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
“And lo and behold, a very unusual thing happened,” said 97-year-old Ralph Brunn. “They gave a wonderful connotation to the main ingredients that were there, and they were the ones that created the Old Bay flavor, which is, of course, so popular today.”
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At first, since they had their own mixes, fish market vendors rejected his father’s attempts to sell them his, said Ralph Brunn. But then Gustav Brunn gave a small crab steamer a free sample, and he came back for more, and others in the fish market followed. Sales took off from there. Brunn later named his seasoning after a line of Chesapeake Bay steamers that ran between Baltimore and Norfolk – Old Bay – and began selling it to grocery stores in 1942.
Competitors tried to copy the mix, said Ralph Brunn. Because of his father’s additions, they couldn’t.
The original spice grinder that was used to create the seasoning is now on display at Baltimore’s Museum of Industry, along with a glimpse into the history of Gustav Brunn. Claire Mullins, the museum’s marketing director, said it was her favorite artifact in the collection.
“It’s a really great story of an immigrant success and a positive impact on a community,” Mullins said. “It’s such a classic American success story of someone who truly fills a need we didn’t know we had as a society. And where would we be these days without Old Bay?
Ralph Brunn was just 14 when his father started the Baltimore Spice Company, but after serving in the military and graduating from Johns Hopkins, he returned to the family business. He worked with his father until the 1960s when Gustav retired and Ralph took over. Ralph Brunn said Old Bay was only a small percentage of the Baltimore Spice Company’s business when he was with the company, a time when it expanded out of the region and opened factories across the world.
“I was able to achieve with Baltimore Spice Company domestic growth, international growth,” Brunn said. “I was able to do this because my father had built a very solid foundation.”
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The Brunn family sold the business to another spice conglomerate in the 1980s. McCormick purchased the Old Bay product line in 1990.
“It made sense. OLD BAY is an iconic brand founded in Baltimore, loved and embraced as a symbol of Maryland pride,” McCormick executive Pratt wrote. McCormick, she noted, “has been headquartered in Baltimore for over 130 years.”
Since this acquisition, Old Bay has continued to grow in its partnerships with new products and branding. Her most loyal fans celebrated the spice mix with tattoos classic logo and Old Bay themed weddings. Pratt said McCormick plans to continue to cater to the fandom with new products as well.
“Our fans can expect to enjoy much more exciting things from Old Bay over the coming months,” she said. In the meantime, they can find the new Old Bay Goldfish on grocery store shelves. through this summer.
Brunn, for one, probably won’t be trying crackers anytime soon. He just doesn’t like, he says, foods that are too spicy.