Recommended By Duncan Hines
“Duncan Hines, the cake mix guy?”
That’s usually the reaction I get when someone sees one of my postcards that proclaims that a restaurant or motel is “Recommended by Duncan Hines.”
Yep, him. But before he was the “cake mix guy” Americans relied on Duncan Hines as the expert of the quality of restaurants and inns along America’s highways. It’s safe to say he was an early Trip Advisor. And it all happened LONG before the cake mixes
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 for a while out west at Wells Fargo before relocating to Chicago and settling on a job there as a traveling salesman of office supplies.
Duncan Hines became a traveling salesman just as the automobile was becoming a national obsession. With that obsession came the rise of the highways and the restaurants and inns that serviced them. Word-of-mouth was the only review system for these establishments. There wasn’t a government inspection agency for restaurants yet that Americans could rely on to enforce safe food guidelines. There was no Health Department that would inspect for cleanliness of these establishments either.
Duncan Hines 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 the country and back again on many miles of American highways. Those long hours behind the wheel gave him plenty of time to consider and record the best food he found along the way. 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 cleanliness, 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 eventually turned this traveling salesman into a trusted roadside food connoisseur.
Friends and family were always asking for a copy of his list. So, with the help of his wife, Florence, Duncan Hines started what would become the most reliable rating and safety system travelers had at the time.
In 1935 they printed the first pamphlet of 167 restaurants in 33 states that he felt he could safely recommend.
It didn’t take long before other traveling salesmen and auto tourists were asking for his recommendations.
The rules were simple: If restaurants could not deliver Duncan Hines a quality meal and a peek at the kitchen, they were never to be included in the book. “The kitchen is the first spot I inspect,” he said. Cleanliness was a big deal.
Demand for the list continued to increase. In 1936 Duncan Hines, at 55 years old, self-published the first edition of Adventures in Good Eating. He sold it for $1 a copy. In 1937 he raised the price to $1.50, and kept it there until he stopped publishing it in 1954. Copies of the pamphlets wound up in glove compartments everywhere.
“Recommended by Duncan Hines.” became a valuable recommendation for restaurants and later for the motels that he documented in much the same way he did the restaurants.
Duncan Hines accepted no ads or endorsements in exchange for any of his reviews.
Business owners actively advertised, and benefited from, their Duncan Hines’ seals of approval.
Later, Hines published: Lodging for a Night (1938) using the same rigorous rules he used for restaurants.
Adventures in Good Cooking came along in 1939, and a variety of cookbooks 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 Duncan Hines and Roy Park 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. Today, the company is owned by Pinnacle Foods.
Duncan Hines passed away in March of 1959.
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 he changed the way Americans experienced the open road.” I think that sums it up perfectly.
Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Man in Food
by Louis Hatchett
University Press of Kentucky, 2014
ISBN 13 978-0813144597