The hidden stories behind America’s biggest brands
Good ol’ trusty Charles Shaw. It’s always there at Trader Joe’s when you need it, a mere $2 away from helping you unwind from a hectic day of work. But, have you ever wondered about the story behind dear Two-Buck-Chuck? Turns out the man behind the notoriously cheap wine is not who you think he is…
Surprisingly, there’s much more conflama (conflict + drama) attached to the names of other household brands sitting in your kitchen cabinet or decorating your living room. The following stories on these 10 companies will make you think twice next time you consider placing their products in your shopping cart.
Here’s how your favorite childhood store went out of business
Before there was Netflix, On Demand, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and other instant media streaming services, there was Blockbuster. Any 90’s kid will tell you taking an outing to the video rental store was the highlight of their weekend — especially if their parents gave them the honor of letting them pick the movie.
Unfortunately for the company, it lost its popularity with the rise of video streaming. The store’s parent company, Dish Network, began the process of shutting down Blockbuster stores in 2013 — all 9,000 of them. However, one state held on strong to most of the remaining stores.
Blockbuster’s “Last Frontier” was in this state
Turns out Blockbuster came as a relief for Alaskans that struggled with the high costs of WiFi and long dark winters. Blockbuster held out in the Last Frontier state, but finally its last two stores in Anchorage, Alaska announced they’d close July 16, 2018. Tourists flocked to the stores, just for a glimpse of nostalgia past.
But hold on — there is one Blockbuster left in the U.S. in the small city of Bend, Oregon, with a population of almost 100,000. Business Insider reports it’s found success because of good finances, customer loyalty, and nostalgia. Next up, the man behind a household brand that didn’t earn even a penny from his creation.
He introduced French wine to the U.S.
Charles Shaw, the mastermind behind Trader Joe’s “Two-Buck-Chuck,” found himself falling deeply in love with French wine while living in Paris. To introduce Americans to French wine, Shaw and his wife bought a Napa Valley vineyard and made an award-winning Gamay. But Shaw’s dreams of doing French wine in California came to a halt.
Americans didn’t really ‘get’ French wine at the time, as they were mostly drinking Cabernets. Shaw sold the remaining bottles of Gamay to a friend named Joe Colom, and set off making different wines. Shaw made a comeback with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir but things eventually went south.
The man behind Charles Shaw isn’t who you think
A supplier accidentally polluted some of his wine and a root louse bug destroyed Shaw’s main vineyard. When the bank started to call him for debts owed, the struggling winemaker tried to ask his wife for money. Lucy was over it — she wanted a divorce, control of the winery, and the money she gave Shaw.
Lucy declared bankruptcy and the winery was sold to businessman Fred Franzia. During the recession in 2002, Franzia offloaded Charles Shaw wine to Shaw’s friend, Joe Colom, who then sold it for $2 at — you guessed it — Joe’s store, Trader Joe’s. Shaw never saw a dime from the sales but tells Business Insider he is thrilled people love the wine.
How does Ikea pick its furniture names?
Ektorp, Kivik, Solbo, Malm, Fyrkantig, Smorboll — no, these are not gibberish but actually the names of Ikea products. The Swedish-based furniture company is well known among thrifty shoppers that crave quality items at affordable prices. It is also known for its unique naming system. The story behind it will surprise you.
Former product developer, Janne Ahlsén, told Business Insider that Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad’s sister was in charge of the names. Turns out it was hard to develop a name that would meet her exacting standards. The company picked names according to certain parameters which we will discuss next.
Ikea’s naming system has a very specific purpose
Ikea has a whole system of organizing and naming that is unique in retail: It will group products into categories rather than serial numbers. For example, bed textiles are named after flora and bookcases after professions and boys’ names. This naming system wasn’t created just for kicks — it had a purpose.
Turns out Kamprad suffered from dyslexia. Having this unique naming and organizing system in place helped him keep track of the thousands of products Ikea offers. All the names are Swedish, of course, and impossible for most Americans to pronounce… This next soda has a myriad of uses.
They use Coca-Cola for WHAT?!
There is a church that believes burping purges the soul from evil, which is a unique view on its own. What’s even more unique is the drink used in purging — Coca-Cola! The sugary beverage makes the congregation burp, perfect for ridding demons. Guess where you have to go for soda-aided worship?
Travel to the heart of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico and you’ll find the “Coca-Cola Church,” aka, St. John the Baptist. Besides repelling evil, Coke is also used by the congregation for decoration and healing. The bubbly drink played a huge role in one Mexican celebrity’s life.
HE worked at Coca-Cola?
Coca-Cola became extremely popular in Mexico even outside of St. John the Baptist church, Business Insider reports. One delivery worker started working at the company in 1964 and worked his way up the ranks as the drink boomed in popularity. He then became Coca-Cola Mexico’s president, and eventually president of the entire country.
This savvy businessman was none other than Mexican president, Vicente Fox. While leading Coca-Cola, Fox took on the drink’s competitor, Pepsi. He always loved Coke — he would drink 12 bottles a day when he started as a delivery worker! This next company stepped up on 9/11.
How a salesman accidentally saved a customer’s life
A man was on his way to a job interview at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He decided he didn’t like his tie and so walked into Brooks Brothers to get a new one. Salesman Antonio DeJesus took forever to help the man get his tie. Turns out that was a good thing.
When the man walked out of Brooks Brothers in frustration, the North Tower had already been hit by terrorists. That was where the interview would have been. Inadvertently, DeJesus had saved this man’s life by making him late. The men’s clothing store stepped up during the crisis in another important way.
Brooks Brothers helped out on 9/11
This Brooks Brothers is located in One Liberty Plaza, a building close to the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar headed downtown to help after the Twin Towers were hit. A police officer asked him to work in the Brooks Brothers, helping set it up as a temporary morgue.
The 32-year-old doctor ran the makeshift morgue for over an hour. He told Business Insider medical school didn’t prepare him for the horrors he experienced. The store hung up a photo of what the scene looked like that day. The family that made the following brand said it cursed them.
This dessert made a family rich
An inventor in the 1800s struggled to sell his new dessert product, so it was sold to Orator Francis Woodward for $450. Woodward then sold the product for $67 million in the 1920s — that’s almost $1 billion by today’s standards. What dessert could possibly be worth that much?
The jiggly gelatin snack we all know and love of course: Jell-O! It found success with new technologies like refrigeration, powdered gelatin, machine packaging, and a pioneering marketing plan: Jell-O cookbooks. It came to be known as “America’s most famous dessert.” Despite the success, not everyone liked the sweet, jiggly dessert.
Jell-O doesn’t make everyone happy
Allie Rowbottom, an heir to the Jell-O fortune, isn’t as fond of the dessert as the rest of the U.S. is. She and her relatives believed the wealth Jell-O brought the family caused more harm that good. Rowbottom’s family suffered from a history of alcoholism, addiction and early death.
Rowbottom even wrote a book about Jell-O and the women that were apart of creating the brand called Jell-O Girls: A Family History. The gelatin dessert inheritor’s memoir describes how the Jell-O empire seemed to curse her grandmother, mother and herself. This next brand used to attract a completely different crowd than it does now.
This bar started the co-ed cocktail party revolution
The U.S. suffered through a booze drought from 1919 to 1933 called Prohibition. When it was repealed, bars reopened again but only for male customers. Men and women did drink together during Prohibition but only at home. Even with drinking legal again, it was still difficult for men and women to socialize.
Alan Stillman, an Upper East Side perfume salesman, was on the prowl for single ladies. He bemoaned the fact that men and women couldn’t drink together. He decided to make his own bar, borrowing $5,000 from his mother to get started. You’ll never guess which family-friendly restaurant started the co-ed cocktail party revolution…
From singles bar to family-friendly restaurant
In March 1965, Stillman opened the very first T.G.I. Friday’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The New Yorker says that the bar was brighter and cleaner than regular bars with welcoming domestic flourishes. Stillman had no experience running a bar, but people loved it because it welcomed men and women.
Young women lined up around the block Friday nights waiting to get into T.G.I. Friday’s. Copycats started opening up on the same block and brought many crowds to the Manhattan neighborhood. Now, T.G.I. Friday’s is the family-friendly restaurant we all know and love today. Next, a bankrupt store gives back.
This homeless shelter was homeless
Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia needed a new home — its current one (located in an old DMV) needed many renovations. Meanwhile, the shelter needed somewhere to house its homeless clientele. With the declining foot traffic in malls came empty storefronts and a surprising solution for Carpenter’s Shelter and the homeless population it served.
Landmark Mall closed down January 2017, leaving a lot of empty department stores. Its owner, real estate company Howard Hughes Corporation, said its closure was a long time coming. Carpenter’s moved its operations into one of the stores June 2018. You’ll never guess which department store became a temporary homeless shelter.
An unlikely hero helped out this shelter
Carpenter’s moved into an old Macy’s building in Landmark Mall. A sign reading “Carpenter’s Shelter” covers the smudged lettering that used to be a Macy’s sign. Business Insider reports that, apparently, there are very few signs that it used to be Macy’s but somehow wayward shoppers still end up at the shelter.
Carpenter’s director of programming, Blair Copeland, says people walk in thinking it’s still a Macy’s. “Occasionally, there’ll be somebody that says, ‘I want to return something,’” says Copeland. “I’m like, ‘How could you?’ Stop. First of all, the mall has been closed for like 2 years. And secondly, it doesn’t look like Macy’s anymore.”
What’s the story behind the most “basic” drink in history?
When fall season rolls around, everyone starts making fun of the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) from Starbucks but secretly really wants to drink one. We don’t blame you, it’s legit good! The spiciness and sweetness all mixed together with a shot of caffeine — perfect for warming up against a brisk fall breeze.
Now the drink is known as a symbol of all things fall and mainstream basic culture. “Basic” meaning uncreative and unimaginative by most definitions, maybe “overly feminine” by sexist standards. Believe it or not, there’s a pretty basic story as to how the PSL came to be.
This is the person that created the PSL
Basically, a man named Peter Dukes created the drink in 2003, it did well in focus groups and became a product on Starbucks’ menu. Dukes had no idea PSLs would have such an impact on American culture. He tells Business Insider coming to terms with the success was “definitely a process.”
“I’ll never forget coming in and pulling the numbers and looking at the numbers and how well it sold,” Dukes tells Business Insider. Discussions over what “basic” meant floored Dukes. If “basic” meant having fun with PSLs, he argued, what’s wrong with that? Next, a company that may or may not be a pyramid scheme.
Is this household name a pyramid scheme?
This multi-level marketing company markets health, beauty, and home care products but there is suspicion around its practices. It was described by the author of Skeptic’s Dictionary, Robert Carroll, as a “legal pyramid scheme.” He said they were able to get away with it because its quasi-religious affiliates hid low-performance ratings.
So which marketing company was accused of sketchy practices? American Way is its name (or Amway for short) and it’s still going strong today despite the pyramid scheme accusations. This is how they were able to prove their innocence (or maybe get away with it) in the face of investigations.
The Federal Trade Commission investigated and found this
The big guns themselves, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), looked into Amway’s pyramid scheme accusations and said the company didn’t fit the description. To be a pyramid scheme, Amway had to pay its distributors to recruit people, require distributors to buy stock of unmoving product, maintain retail sales, and accept returns of excess.
Buuut in the same 1979 ruling, Amway’s price-fixing and making over-exaggerated income claims were found out. FTC ordered Amway to stop but they ended up violating this again with an ad campaign in 1986. You’ll never guess how the following search engine came up with its name.
If spell check existed back then, this company would’ve had a different name
The lack of spell check back in the day contributed to the name of the most popular search engine in the world. Well, maybe not so much as it wouldn’t have known the word “google.” That’s right, Google was very, very close to having a different name. What was it?
Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sean Anderson, were brainstorming when they accidentally came up with their company name. Since the search engine could index a lot of data, the mathematical term “Googolplex” was suggested. Page wanted to shorten the name to “Googol,” but what Anderson did next changed the company name forever.
Google almost had a terrible name
Anderson wanted to check if the name “Googol” was available for company use so he ran a search. He then typed the name in wrong — “Google.” It was available and both Page and Anderson liked the name and incorrect spelling. They had also considered a very different name…
Anderson and Page, who were grad students at Stanford at the time, thought about calling their search engine “BackRub” because it searched through backlinks. Fortunately, “BackRub” was nixed for “Googol” then “Google.” Thus, the great and powerful search engine Google was born! Read on to find the backstory about another tech giant.
Fruit and a diet inspired this company name
The name behind this popular tech company known for its computers, phones, and mp3 players is an interesting one. Its co-founder thought of the name based off his experience working in an apple orchard in Oregon. At the time, he’d been trying out the controversial fruitarian diet which also influenced this company name…
You guessed it — Apple Computer Inc. Its eccentric co-founder, Steve Jobs, thought the name was more approachable compared to other tech companies at the time with much more complicated names. Apple and its apple logo were seen as much more free-spirited than its competitors. You’ll never guess what one co-founder sold his share for.
This co-founder sold his shares for this crazy amount
Apple was founded in 1976 by Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in Jobs’ childhood home in Los Altos, California. They incorporated the company a year later but Wayne dropped out, selling his share for a mere $800. You won’t believe how much it’s worth now — Wayne probably doesn’t either!
CNN Money reports the company is now on the verge of becoming worth $1 trillion in 2018! It’s now the world’s largest information tech company by revenue and assets. Samsung is still the biggest phone manufacturer but Apple comes in at a close second. Read on to get the hidden story behind another tech giant.
From bad rice to advanced technology
This company began in the wake of World War II in Tokyo, Japan. Masaru Ibuka formed Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo and created his first product: a rice cooker (rice is a big part of the Japanese diet.) Unfortunately, it turns out this electric rice cooker didn’t work that well.
Ibuka’s rice cooker mostly made under or overcooked rice and required a certain type of rice in order to work properly. You know what they say — if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. That is just what Ibuka did, thus creating one of the world’s biggest tech companies.
“Sony” was inspired by these two words
Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo was later renamed Sony Corporation. Ibuka did a rebranding with a romanized name so he could market his company worldwide. He considering using initials TTK but there was a railway company with the same acronym. “Sony” was a mix of the Latin word for sound, “Sonus,” and slang word “sonny.”
Sony went on to make major milestones throughout the decades such as creating Japan’s first tape recorder, the G Type, and becoming the 5th largest TV maker in the world. It’s now a multinational conglomerate corporation but still based in its hometown, Tokyo. Next, the story behind a hotel you’ve probably stayed at.
From root beer stand to international hotel chain
A Mormon missionary couple in 1927 opened a root beer stand thinking that D.C. residents should have a cool place to sit and escape the summertime heat. The nine-stool stand began offering sandwiches and chili during the winter. Then, it developed into a chain of Hot Shoppes and went public in 1953.
The business-savvy couple was John Willard Marriott and Alice Sheets Marriott. Their root beer stand and Hot Shoppes were the beginning of the Marriott hotel chain. The Marriotts opened their very first hotel in Arlington, Virginia in 1957. Hot Shoppes Inc. was renamed Marriott Corporation ten years later.
Marriott used to own a WHAT?!
The fact that Marriott grew from a small root beer stand to an international diversified hospitality company is impressive. Did you know they owned a couple theme parks at one point? Marriott opened two in 1976 with the same name: Marriott’s Great America outside Chicago and Marriott’s Great America outside San Francisco.
The ride didn’t last for long for these two theme parks — Marriott sold both in 1984. The company did well without the parks. Heirs to the Marriott fortune, Bill and Richard Marriott, are worth $1.2 billion according to Oyster.com. This next entrepreneur became successful once he switched his product.
From soap to baking powder to a household brand name
This entrepreneur moved to Chicago in 1891 with just $32 and started a soap business. He gave away baking powder as an incentive for customers to buy his soap. The soap maker noticed baking powder was popular so he started selling that instead. He switched his business yet again proving that third time’s a charm.
The soap maker turned baking powder slinger finally settled on chewing gum, which became Wrigley Company. He named it after himself — William Wrigley Jr. Then came Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, the gum flavor that really stuck, so to speak. The gum was shortly taken off the market temporarily — find out why next.
Americans temporarily went without Wrigley’s
It was taken off the civilian market temporarily during World War II due to ingredient shortages and demand for gum in C-rations. When the war ended, Wrigley’s reintroduced the Juicy Fruit gum to the American market with a new look. Originally the packaging was striped but it’s new look was totally different.
Its iconic stripes were replaced by a bright yellow background and “Juicy Fruit” bracketed between two stylized motifs. Over the years the motifs and designs changed slightly, as did some of the ingredients. Some of the sugar in the gum was replaced by artificial sweeteners among other ingredients.