“Duncan Hines, the cake mix guy?” That’s usually the reaction I get when someone sees one of my postcards that says “Recommended by Duncan Hines” somewhere on it. It’s one of the few times I get to say “it was before my time,” but yep, him. Long before he was the “cake mix guy” Americans relied on Duncan Hines as a connoisseur of restaurants and inns along America’s highways. It’s safe to say he was probably our first food critic, restaurant rater and hotel reviewer. You know, our first Yelp. All of which happened LONG before the cake mixes that my generation knows him for.
Duncan Hines was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in March of 1880. He was raised by his grandmother there before attending college at Bowling Green Business University. He worked a while out west for Wells Fargo before choosing Chicago as his home base to live in as he traveled America’s highways selling office supplies.
He became a traveling salesman just as the automobile was becoming a national obsession. With the rise of the automobile came the rise of the highways and all the little restaurants and inns that serviced them. With no Yelp or Trip Advisor to count on, word-of-mouth was the only review system for these establishments. There wasn’t even a government inspection agency yet for restaurants that Americans could rely on to enforce safe food guidelines or even a Health Department that would inspect for cleanliness of these establishments.
For a time, Duncan Hines, with the help of his wife, Florence, was the most reliable rating and safety system travelers had.
He was never a chef, in fact he admitted to not being able to cook at all. But he was always desperate for a clean restaurant and a good meal as his job took him across miles and miles of American highways. The long hours behind the wheel gave him plenty of time to consider and record the best food he could find. He was always carrying a small journal in his coat pocket where he recorded specific information about where he found the best food and the cleanest kitchens that cooked it.
According to an NPR article by Nicole Jankowski in March of 2017, Hines “meticulously recorded the names of the most pristine diners with the tastiest food.” In his coat-pocket journal he recorded where the best prime beef was, where the stickiest sticky buns were, the hours a restaurant was open, its prices and whether or not it had air conditioning. If they served a particular regional food, he noted that too. It was a comprehensive collection of notes that turned this traveling salesman into a trusted roadside food connoisseur.
Duncan Hines’ friends and family were always asking for a copy of his list. It was word-of-mouth that convinced him to start sharing the list. It didn’t take long for other traveling salesmen and auto tourists to begin asking for his recommendations. In 1935 Duncan and Florence Hines printed the first pamphlet of 167 restaurants in 33 states that he felt he could safely recommend.
Demand for the list continued to increase. In 1936 Duncan Hines was 55 years old when he self-published the first edition of Adventures in Good Eating. He sold it for $1 each. In 1937 he raised the price to $1.50, and kept it there until he stopped publishing it in 1954.
Copies of the pamphlets were in glove compartments everywhere.
The rules were simple: If restaurants could not deliver Duncan Hines a quality meal or a peek at the kitchen, they were never included in the book. “The kitchen is the first spot I inspect,” he said. He accepted no ads or endorsements in exchange for reviews.
“Recommended by Duncan Hines.” became a valuable recommendation for restaurants and later for motels he documented in much the same way he documented restaurants. Business owners actively advertised and benefitted from the Duncan Hines’ “seal of approval”.
Duncan Hines also published: Lodging for a Night (1938), Adventures in Good Cooking (1939), and a variety of recipe and helpful kitchen books over the years such as, Art of Carving in the Home (1939) and the The Duncan Hines Barbecue Cookbook.
It wasn’t until 1952, when he was 72, that Roy Park and Duncan Himes formed the Hines-Park Company. It was this partnership that brought the Duncan Hines name to our kitchens in the form of cake mixes, brownie mixes and ice cream cartons. The company was sold to Proctor and Gamble in 1957. Duncan Hines passed away in March of 1959. Today, the company is owned by Pinnacle Foods.
For more discussion and information there are active forums on Roadfood.com where members discuss Duncan Hines and the remaining restaurants from that first list of 167. One of the members says, “Traveling the highways with his pencil and notebook changed the way American experienced the open road, one adventure at a time.” I think that sums it up perfectly.