But the ones who are cashing in are Campbell and Reckitt Benckiser, transforming a simple dish into a marketing powerhouse. More than 30 million consumers make a green-bean casserole every holiday season.
The holiday hallmark accounts for about $20 million of the $100 million annual sales of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, and makes up an eye-popping 80% of Reckitt Benckiser's $70 million French's French Fried Onions brand's sales during crucial holiday time.
"You never know what a recipe will become, and every once in a while you capture lightning in a bottle," said Alex Fried, brand manager of French's, who was on hand with Ms. Reilly to celebrate the dish's golden anniversary last week at Manhattan's trendy TriBeCa comfort-food haven, Bubby's.
"Meeting Dorcas Reilly is like meeting John Lennon," said Bubby's co-owner Ron Silver. And, indeed, to the legions of food-company kitchen staffers hoping to catch lightning, she is a rock star.
Cindy Ayers, VP-Campbell's Kitchen, proudly wearing a necklace made of miniature kitchen utensils, is the modern equivalent of Ms. Reilly, Campbell's famed home economist. She is no slouch, having herself helped develop the one-dish-chicken-and-rice-bake recipe in the mid `90s that, according to the proprietary "recipe-tracking process" she has championed, has the same awareness and usage frequency as the green-bean casserole (arguably Campbell's most-requested recipe ever). In addition, from her days as a restaurant owner, Ms. Ayers determined that Campbell's Swanson broth could be substituted for water in almost any recipe, a catchall idea that has greatly contributed to the dramatic double-digit sales of the brand in recent years.
Every year, Campbell and French's separately push the green-bean-casserole recipe via TV and print ads, Sunday inserts, in-store signage and displays, Web sites and, of course, on their own packages (where it is a fixture, based on serious complaints when at points in the past it has been removed). Thousands of articles featuring the recipe run in newspapers and magazines during the holidays since "for many people, not having green-bean casserole at Thanksgiving would be like not having turkey," said Barbara Yaros, director-marketing services for French's Foods.
Reaching out to food editors is a crucial piece of the puzzle. For 30 years, Family Features Editorial Syndicate has helped, developing color features based on food marketers' recipes for roughly 1,600 newspaper editors and, more recently, for consumer Web site Culinary.net, which receives an average of 75,000 hits a month.
Terry Bustamante, manager of sales for Family Features, said the green-bean casserole is unusual in that variations attempted over the years to modernize the recipe have not been well-received. Most of the other 600 or so recipes it pushes annually on behalf of Kraft, Nestle, Unilever and others have shifted over the years to reflect new tastes.
For PepsiCo's Quaker brand, a good portion of sales come from recipes such as the one for "vanishing" oatmeal cookies that has long graced the cereal's inside lid, a company spokeswoman said. These days, to capitalize on the whole-grain craze, Quaker is suggesting oatmeal as an ingredient in meatloaf and as a breading for chicken. French's is likewise still trolling for on-trend recipes. With partner General Mills, French's is backing "mashed-potatoes ole" made with its Cheddar French Fried Onions and Betty Crocker's instant Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes. It's a long shot, but they can always hope.
A lot of green...
1955 Year the recipe was invented by home economist Dorcas Reilly
30 million Number of consumers who make one each holiday season
$20 million Annual sales of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup attributed to recipe
$56 Million Annual sales of French’s French Fried Onions attributed to the recipe