Kept under wraps for decades
That “red devil” with the pitchfork is the instantly recognizable emblem for Underwood meat spreads, and it put our Hannibal, Mo., plant on the map 40 years ago.
Those tasty spreads in the meticulously wrapped can haven’t been made in our plant since the Underwood brand was sold in 1999 to New Jersey-based B&G Foods. But for some Missouri employees it’s hard to forget making millions of cans of ground meat with the secret formula of a yellow mustard base and blend of spices.
The product even made good bartering material.
Bill Fiesler, a 39-year General Mills employee, could do what all workers at the plant did: Buy a case of the product onsite.
“I once traded a case of deviled ham for some parts for my pinball machine,” he says.
If that was dealing with the devil, some of the townsfolks might not argue.
Employees with perfect attendance in a given year received a jacket with the popular devil logo. Now and then Fiesler would wear his jacket to Sunday services.
“Some of my church members took offense,” Bill recalls.
Today, General Mills retains the Underwood brand in only Venezuela. When General Mills purchased Pillsbury in 2001, it kept the Underwood international business. Known as Diablitos Underwood, it’s a staple in Venezuela, found in more than eight in 10 homes there.
In the U.S, the brand traces to the Massachusetts-based William Underwood Co., which aimed to expand to a Midwest location because of the proximity to nearby hog farmers. It chose Missouri.
Our plant opened there in 1972, a marriage was born, and for nearly 30 years workers cooked, skinned, and deboned the hams, and mixed the spreads right there.
The plant had a small-town feel, people recall, and Underwood president George C. Seybolt, would stop by to shake hands – and sometimes to deliver a little present.
During one Hannibal visit, Seybolt attended a play that he enjoyed so much that he returned to the box office and bought out the auditorium for a night, inviting plant workers and spouses to attend.
Oh. The wrapper. If only the public knew what it took to get that Underwood paper label with the red devil logo wrapped around the can.
That wrapper had special overlapping folds on the top and bottom of the can that resembled a shutter on a camera. The process of wrapping each can took special machinery, extra time, and was considered a bit of an art.
Cans were produced much faster than they could be wrapped. But don’t go suggesting a change.
“Corporate would not go for it. They said the wrap was a trademark for the product, ” recalls Kenny Miller, a 23-year veteran of the plant who served as a mechanic for the Underwood line.
Consumers surveyed said that they loved the iconic wrap, and one day Kenny learned that was true.
The father of Kenny’s neighbor was a big fan of the Underwood products, so one day Kenny presented him with a case of the stuff.
“He was so excited to get it, and I told him how much of a pain it was to get that label wrapped as it is.
The beneficiary of Kenny’s gift told him in no uncertain terms, “That wrap on the can makes the product.”