Louis Hatchett was a graduate student in search of a master’s thesis when he came upon a book called “Adventures in Good Eating”. The author was Duncan Hines and the book would transform the course of Hatchett’s professional life.
“Duncan Hines is probably a kindred spirit,” said Hatchett. “When I read that he would travel from Chicago to Detroit for lunch, I said ‘this man is just like me’, because I’ve traveled 200 miles to eat a steak and gone back home the same day.”
We visited recently with Hatchett at the Duncan Hines Exhibit at the Kentucky Museum on the WKU campus.
After compiling reams of research, the Henderson, Kentucky author eventually produced a 750-page manuscript. He whittled the content down to 75 pages for his thesis and 300 pages for a book called “Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food”. The book was originally published under a slightly different title in 2001, but was republished this spring.
In the book, Hatchett contends that Hines created a revolution when it came to roadside dining. He says more people died from food poisoning in the 1930s along American roadways than they did in car accidents.
“The difference between restaurant reviewers of the day and Duncan Hines is that the reviewers would say ‘go here this is good’, by contrast, Duncan Hines said ‘go here because I am trying to protect you," said Hatchett. "Now I ask, which one of those statements do you find the more reassuring?”
Hatchett says Hines’ honest, sincere and, in his words “grandfatherly” writing style appealed to readers. And for Hines the traveler, cleanliness was next to godliness.
“His method of operation, in the early years, was to first go to the backdoor and see what he found. If he found anything disgusting, he left. Because if they didn’t keep their kitchen clean, God knows what they did in the dining room,” said Hatchett.
Hines’ restaurant recommendations started off as a Christmas card mailing to a few friends, but eventually blossomed into a business in which he sold millions of copies of his restaurant, hotel and cooking guides. As his popularity grew, Hines declined numerous offers from companies who wanted to advertise in his books. He also chose not to endorse any products.
“He did not want to lose the trust that the American public had placed in him,” said Hatchett. “As Hines put it, once the public saw him succumbing to money or some other form of influence, his greatest asset – which was his independence – would be compromised.”
But Hines finally relented, and that decision to get behind a particular product is what has made “Duncan Hines” a household name, nearly 80 years after he published his first “Adventures in Good Eating”
“Roy Park came to Duncan Hines and said ‘I don’t want to make money off your name. Instead, I want to create a line of products to honor you,’” said Hatchett.
And that line of products ranged from ice cream to jellies and jams to cake mix, salad dressing, steak sauce and pickles.
Today, Pinnacle Brands owns the Duncan Hines name. Earlier this year, Pinnacle was sold to Hillshire Brands.
Despite selling millions of books and putting his name on countless food products, Hatchett says Hines never saw a large financial windfall from his success. He says Hines lived an upper-middle class life, but left an estate valued at $31,000.
So what drove Duncan Hines?
“I think it was his love of people,” said Hines’ great niece, Cora Jane Spiller. “That kept him going and enjoying seeing their responses and enjoying entertaining people almost like an entertainer and being pleased by their smiles and compliments and salutations, almost as if he was performing on a stage.”
From his years of studying Duncan Hines, Hatchett says Hines’ timing was fortuitous, developing a love for travel and dining at a time when the country was emerging from the throes of the Great Depression.
“He was the right man in the right place at the right time,” Hatchett said. “When he came along people were wanting to travel, but they didn’t know where to eat or stay for that matter.”
When Hatchett first approached publishers with his book idea, he says some of them questioned whether Duncan Hines ever really existed. He did, in fact, and Hatchett says the way Americans think about roadside dining has never been the same.