Leroy Shane moved from Ohio to Rochester in the 1940s, bringing much-needed joy to the Med City when he opened his novelty store, The Shepherd of the Sand Hills.
But Shane was much more than a mere 1940s novelty store proprietor. He was a visionary. Shane proposed the first gas station mini-mart, was first to license the Slinky patent, and introduced the first diet frozen dinner.
Long before there were healthy choices and lean cuisines, there were “Diets of Rochester.”
In 1954, the year Swanson introduced the iconic TV Dinner, more than 25 million frozen dinners were sold.
About that same time, another craze was sweeping the nation: dieting. That’s when Shane saw an opportunity in the convergence of the two. The Minneapolis Star newspaper reported that “a man with a weight problem has converted his difficulty into a growing business. After a trip through Mayo Clinic,” they wrote, “he was referred to the Diet Kitchen for a diet of 1,000 calories a day. Leroy Shane came up with the idea of packaging low-calorie frozen foods.”
In 1956, Shane started a $10,000 test market program with Marshall Field’s in Chicago, and Diets of Rochester—the very first frozen diet dinner company in the nation—was born.
In October of 1957, eight 275-calorie Dream Diets were created by Colette Heise, who was a dietitian at Methodist Hospital. Each dinner 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 Downs Foods in St. James, near Mankato. First Brokerage Co., of Minneapolis, handled distribution.
The company was headed by Sam S. Badali, one of the Midwest’s pioneer frozen food processors. Shane was vice president and Heise the head dietitian. The launch included several full-page ads in Twin Cities’ newspapers.
Advertising magazine Tide reported that Shane’s promotional budget for the launch of the “competitively-priced” 79¢ dinners was $500,000, about $4.7 million in today’s dollars!
Preparation of the Dream Diet meals was simple. In fact, that was their attraction. Warming simply required the entrée and vegetable pouch boil in water for 15 minutes to cook.
Included with each Dream Diet were suggestions for various sensible breakfasts. Adhering to a 1,000-calorie diet simply required two of the frozen meals and one of the breakfasts described on the product package.
Shane created a jingle and the meals were heavily promoted by legendary pitchman Aaron Cushman, who had previously represented institutions like Century 21, Keebler Cookies, and for a time, The Three Stooges.
Newspapers from Reading, Penn. to Oxnard, Calif. and from Mason City, Iowa to St. Petersburg, Fla. 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,” Austin said, “for diet food.”
The following year, Diets of Rochester appointed Bruce C. Hartman as executive sales manager. Hartman came from dinner giant Holloway House Frozen Food and prepared to expand distribution to the Milwaukee area, but there is no evidence that actually happened.
Unfortunately, Diets of Rochester never gained traction. The company faded away. The business name was revoked in June of 1959.
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 nearly 30 years—in 1985 with the introduction of ConAgra’s “Healthy Choice”—before the industry fully embraced the diet frozen dinners Shane 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 in Rochester, Minn.
About the author
Chris Miksanek is a longtime Rochester resident and local history buff (and the MedCity Movie Guy). He's previously written about Dr. Thomas D. Moore, the Mayo Clinic urologist who built the Graceland mansion Elvis famously called home in Memphis, Tenn. This story is excerpted from his current book, Leroy Shane: The Shepherd of the Sand Hills and The Life of the Party. If you want to read about Shane's other exploits—like the first gas station mini-mart or the Slinky patent—you can buy the book at facebook.com/BamberBooks.