What Campbell Learned From a 101-Year-Old Tomato Soup Recipe

December 19, 2016, 12:44 PM UTC

Almost all Americans have a few old family recipes on file to make beloved, home-made meals. At Campbell Soup, these recipes can go back a little further than a generation or two.

Tucked away in the archives of the company behind the namesake tomato soup, Goldfish crackers and Prego was Dr. John Dorrance’s original beefsteak tomato soup recipe from 1915. And this year, it made 10,000 jars by following the 101-year-old soup recipe as closely as it could. Plans are in place to sell a small batch line of soups in 2017 for a limited time in Cracker Barrel (CBRL) locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The journey to create this line of soup—from finding local, New Jersey tomatoes to learning what measurement the recipe actually meant when it said to ‘use a #16 bucket’—was talked about with great pride when Fortune visited Campbell Soup’s (CPB) Camden, N.J. headquarters. “I’ve been with Campbell’s for 32 years and the day we were working on this, it was the best day for me with Campbell’s,” said Pete Imhoff, director of pilot plant operations at Campbell. “I felt like I was walking in Dr. Dorrance’s footsteps.”

Many other executives and team members agreed: the investment Campbell made in resurfacing this recipe—which hadn’t been used in many decades—felt inspiring. A return to the old way of doing things in some way mirrors the challenges we see in the food and beverage industry today, as consumers demand cleaner and leaner foods with fewer artificial ingredients and colors. Campbell—which sells 85 million cans of tomato soup each year in the U.S.—says it is on that journey too.


“As we looked back and did some navel-gazing back into our history and our roots, we found things about ourselves that are super relevant to consumers and are different than what other food companies can offer,” said Mark Alexander, president of Campbell’s Americas division.

It all starts with Dorrance

John Dorrance was first employed by Campbell Soup in 1897, hired by his uncle Arthur as a family favor to give his nephew some direction. The younger Dorrance’s first project was to try to figure out how to make a condensed soup, a recipe he quickly solved with his educational background in chemistry and mathematics. He went on to serve as company president—succeeding his uncle Arthur in that role.

The lab where Dr. John Dorrance did his work for Campbell. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company
Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company
The Campbell’s limited run beefsteak tomato soup. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

Under his influence, Campbell began to add soup to a food lineup that already featured 200 different products, including pie fillings, ketchup, mustard and salad dressings. But Campbell didn’t sell soup—the product the company is most closely associated with in consumers’ minds today. Condensed soups sold by Campbell are of course a staple in millions of pantries across the country. But unlike condensed soup—which require the addition of water—the beefsteak tomato recipe is ready to serve.

Dorrance’s 1915 recipe called for locally sourced ingredients, specifically New Jersey tomatoes. And the process he followed was in line with some broader questions he asked himself over 100 years ago about what food meant to him: “Are the ingredients of a grade we would serve at our own table? Does the combination of them appeal to our own sight, smell and taste? Is the price within the reach of most pocketbooks?”

Deciphering the past

Though the recipe is over 100 years ago, the oldest procedure the Campbell archivists could find was from 1925. That meant they had to make some educated guesses along the way, based on cooking methods that were popular at the time. Campbell also had to ask retirees for some help—one critical resource was a retired master chef that had worked at the company for nearly 50 years. He and others were able to help the current team figure out exact measurements that were described vaguely in the original cooking instructions.

Along the way, Campbell came up with modern methods to mimic the historical distillation process (the tanks the company used back then don’t exist today) and also learned key cooking methods that were unique to the time. No water was added to Dorrance’s tomato soup formula. The liquid that makes the soup is entirely from beefsteak juices and pulp.

Though the beefsteak tomato recipe and cooking process closely follows the 1915 vision, there was one notable change that was needed. Campbell’s team had to significantly cut the amount of salt added to the soup. “It was very salty. I think that is just what they liked,” said Tom Helsel, a member of the company’s R&D team.

Campbell used New Jersey grown tomatoes to make the soup based on Dorrance’s 1915 recipe. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company
Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

Campbell also had to call some old friends to source the tomatoes locally. These days, Campbell sources almost all its tomatoes from California. But Dorrance’s recipe called for Jersey tomatoes, so Campbell took that seriously.

“We wanted to honor Dr. Dorrance in what we were attempting to do and the most important ingredient in the soup is the tomato,” Imhoff said. “We felt the most important work we had ahead of us was to do the due diligence on the sourcing.”

To get the roughly 20,000 pounds of tomatoes needed to make about 10,000 jars of soup, Campbell turned to a third-generation farm in Hammonton, N.J., which grows about three acres of the produce. Coincidentally, the parties had done business before. As teenagers, Ed and August—the current owners of Wuillermin & Son Farms—drove their grandfather’s tomatoes to Camden for production at Campbell’s plant.

Why now?

“The food industry is in the midst of a true revolution,” said Campbell Soup President and CEO Denise Morrison at an industry conference earlier this year. “Nearly 70% of adults indicate that fresh is an important attribute when buying food.”

When I met with Campbell’s top Americas executive in Camden, he echoed those comments. “The relevance of Big Food companies is in decline,” Alexander said. “That was a big catalyst for us in rethinking who we are and how we want to show up in this world.”

The movement toward fresher foods with “clean” labels mostly devoid of artificial ingredients explains why items on the perimeter of supermarkets—where fresh meats, vegetables and cheese are found—have been selling strongly while the center of the store filled with more processed goods is facing some sales woes. Established brands and Big Food makers like Campbell are responding by reinventing their products to make simple and better-for-you foods.

Campbell recreated an old label for the new, resurrected soup that was made in 2016. The label features a farmer working with a businessman. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

It also explains why Campbell at the beginning of the year created three new divisions, including Campbell Fresh—a business that generates over $1 billion annually from the sale of Bolthouse Farms, Garden Fresh Gourmet and the company’s U.S. refrigerated soup business. Campbell is making a bigger bet on fresh because, as Morrison explains it, consumers are demanding healthier, real foods with fewer artificial ingredients and minimal processing. But what does “real food” even mean?

Different things to different people, apparently. Jeff George, vice president of research and development of Campbell’s Americas division, told me for some it means no artificial ingredients. Others say it means local or organic. “People have different opinions about what ‘real food’ means to us, consumers, and at Campbell,” he explains.

Campbell has promised to become more real. The company has a so-called “real food index,” which tracks artificial colors, flavorings and high fructose corn syrup found in the company’s various soups, sauces and drinks. Today, Campbell gives itself an 80% rating—and Alexander promises that by the end of the year, that figure will increase to 85%. “We’re not perfect. We are 80% real,” he said. “But we are putting real investment and real initiatives in to make our food more real.” That includes a plan to spend $50 million in his division alone to reduce artificial colors and take Bisphenol A (known as BPA) out of the canned goods, among other moves.

The launch of the original beefsteak tomato soup is a nod to Campbell’s past—but also the company’s future.

“As food has become more mass manufactured, people have lost that connection to food,” George said. “Projects like this help reconnect people to the food, the ingredients and how the food is prepared.”

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