Chef Boy-Ar-Dee is one of the most recognizable faces you’ll see at the grocery store, but it may come as a surprise that the hatwearing moustached pasta kingpin was not a fictional character like Betty Crocker, he was a real person with a real story. That’s right, the man whose face is plastered on beefaroni and ravioli is Ettore “Hector” Boiardi.
Born in 1897 in Piacenza, Italy, Hector Boiardi is rumored to have used a wire whisk for a rattle and had locked in an apprentice chef position by age 11. Boiardi was so talented that, according to his New York Times obituary, he was in charge of catering the wedding reception of President Woodrow Wilson in December 1915.
Two years after the presidential gig, Boiardi moved to Cleveland, Ohio to run the kitchen at the Hotel Winton, and in 1924 Boiardi finally opened his own restaurant ‘Giardino d’ Italia’, “The Garden of Italy” in English. The establishment soon became one of the most prestigious and popular places to eat in all of Cleveland, with several customers lining up on a regular basis to wait for tables and dine on Boiardi’s signature dish; cooked-to-order spaghetti with its special blend of sauce and cheese. Boiardi’s signature dish became so popular that customers wanted to be able to make it at home, so Boiardi developed take-out meal kits that could be assembled and prepared in the comfort of ones home. The kits included dried pasta, cheese and cleaned milk bottles filled with marinara sauce along with instructions on how to cook, heat and assemble the meal.
Before long Boiardi’s dine-in revenue was completely eclipsed by his take-out revenue, and he saw this is a lucrative business opportunity. Boiardi enlisted the help of a grocery store to develop a canning process and eventually find a large-scale distributor. Boiardi purchased a processing plant and in 1928 the Chef Boiardi food company was born. The company’s first product was a pre-packaged spaghetti dinner including a can of grated parmesan, a box of spaghetti noodles and a jar of sauce.
Just as expected, the product did great numbers and sold well, but Boiardi soon ran into another issue. His American patrons and salespeople could not pronounce his name. To combat this issue, Hector changed the name on the products to the more phonetic “Boy-ar-dee” that we all know and love today.
“Everyone is proud of his own family name but sacrifices were necessary for progress,” Boiardi said.
Boiardi’s low-cost but high-quality meals became even more popular during the Great Depression in the United States and helped to make Italian cuisine a mainstay in the US. Boiardi’s company was among the largest importers of parmesan cheese and olive oil from Italy, and in 1938 Boiardi moved his processing plant to Milton, Pennsylvania, after local farmers agreed to grow a certain type of tomato for his pasta sauce. The company even grew its own mushrooms inside the factory.
From his humble beginning running a kitchen in Cleveland, Boiardi became one of the worlds first celebrity chefs. His smiling face on the millions of cans of food saw his company produce exponential growth, growth that he himself could not manage. So in 1946, Boiardi sold the company to the American Home Products conglomerate for nearly $6 million. Hector remained with the company in a consultant capacity until 1978 and continued to appear in advertisements. The chef died on June 21, 1985, at the age of 87, but is forever immortalized on grocery store shelves.