Though the beginning of the modern frozen food era is generally marked by Clarence Birdseye’s invention of “flash freezing” in 1927, it wasn’t until 1944 that William Maxson created the frozen dinner — first for the military and then for commercial airlines. More than a quarter of a century after Birdseye’s process, domestic applications were still impractical because while as many as 70% of American homes had a refrigerator, few had a freezer. But that changed rapidly and by 1954, the year Swanson introduced the iconic “TV Dinner,” more than twenty-five million frozen dinners were sold.
About that same time, another craze was sweeping the nation: dieting. That’s when a local novelty retailer named Leroy Shane saw an opportunity in the convergence of the two.
Shane had come to Rochester more than a decade before noting the Med City’s desperate need for levity. His shop on 2nd Street SE (where the DoubleTree Hotel now stands) was something of a local fixture. As was Shane himself, whose eclectic list of accomplishments included everything from the first Slinky license to the ” Ability Building Center” of which, co-founder Ken Zubay said, “Shane was fundamental to getting it off the ground.”
In 1956, Leroy Shane forged a $10,000 deal with Marshall Field’s in Chicago and “Diets of Rochester,” the very first frozen diet dinner company in the nation, was born.
Eight 275-calorie “Dream Diets” were created by Collette Heise who was a dietician at Methodist Hospital. Each consisted of hot and cold portions in revolutionary packaging (one side heated, the other defrosted) and included a vegetable, salad, dessert, and one of either broiled chicken, pork tenderloin, Swiss steak, breaded veal, roast beef, breaded haddock, macaroni scallopine, or diced beef in gravy. The dinners were manufactured by Tony Down Foods near Mankato, Minnesota.
Shane created a jingle and the meals were heavily promoted by legendary pitchman Aaron Cushman who had before then represented institutions like Century 21, Keebler Cookies, and for a time, The Three Stooges. Newspapers from Reading, Pennsylvania to Oxnard, California and from Mason City, Iowa to St. Petersburg, Florida cited the introduction of these culinary wonders.
Locally, the lunchroom of Shane’s novelty manufacturing facility on North Broadway was transformed into an ad hoc test kitchen. Erika Austin worked for Shane in those days and recalled that the lounge was always stocked with the dinners. “They tasted good,” she said, “for diet food.”
Unfortunately, “Diets of Rochester” never gained traction and faded-away. That there were some allegations the dinners traded on the Mayo Clinic name or that of the similarly titled “Rochester Diet Kitchen” played no part. Shane was simply ahead of his time. It would be 30 years — in 1985 with the introduction of ConAgra’s “Healthy Choice” — before the industry fully-embraced the frozen diet dinners he pioneered.
Today, nutrition-themed frozen dinners are ubiquitous – we chill-out with more than one and a half billion of them each year. But there was a time when they were a novelty. And an innovation. And it all started right here.
Chris Miksanek frequently writes on urban history topics. This article was excerpted from his upcoming biography, “Leroy Shane: The Shepherd of the Sand Hills and The Life of the Party” available through amazon.com