Marion-Kay Spices celebrates 100 years of business across three generations

BROWNSTOWN — Brownstown-based and family-owned company Marion-Kay Spices recently celebrated its 100th year of existence.

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce held an event Tuesday at the company’s headquarters at 1351 W. U.S. 50 to celebrate the anniversary.

Kordell Reid, a third-generation co-owner of the company, talked about the history of his family’s business.

Reid said Marion-Kay started in 1922 in Montgomery City, Missouri, when his grandfather, Marion K. “Bill” Summers, dropped out of school at age 16 to learn how to make vanilla extract in the back of a drugstore.

In 1925, Summers started selling vanilla extract in Springfield, Missouri, under the name of Marion Chemical Co., and the business just continued to grow.

Summers would go on to buy a facility and hire more employees in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. The company’s name became Marion-Kay Products Co. after this move.

During World War II, Summers went into the mail order business after buying a printing company in 1940.

Reid said many people couldn’t afford vanilla extract during the war, so Summers would sell other products, such as handmade lotions and bars of soap.

One popular package included 36 bottles of vanilla extract, priced at only $1 apiece, with a coffee urn. A million bottles of vanilla were shipped out four times a year due to the package’s success.

Company operations were moved to Brownstown in 1949 when Summers found the business’ current building during a camping trip. That building, originally built in 1946 and owned by Thompson Sled Co., was vacant.

The building was conveniently located next to a railway station office where workers were able to load and unload vanilla extract and coffee urns right off of trains.

Summers decided to embark across the world in 1950 to learn more about where the best spices were grown and why, Reid said. He negotiated contracts with farmers from all over to be able to import certain ingredients.

The 1950s were an exciting time for the company after a world-renowned icon started working with Summers: Colonel Harland Sanders.

Kentucky Fried Chicken used an original formula created by Marion-Kay that recreated the famous 11 herbs and spices, Reid said.

During Sanders’ early relationship with Marion-Kay Spices, Reid said he would use nothing but the company’s seasonings for the original chicken seasoning formula.

Selling spices to KFC would lead to Marion-Kay selling their products to restaurants in Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan.

In 1966, a building next to the company’s location was built after a handshake deal between Sanders and Reid’s father, Jim Reid.

That same year, Sanders won a lawsuit because KFC franchises were not making chicken the way he wanted, and Marion-Kay Spices were no longer used in their products.

Some KFC franchises, however, still wanted to used the original spices to stay consistent with the company’s original blend and continued to buy from Marion-Kay Spices.

This would break the contract with KFC, so the company sued Marion-Kay Spices, and Summers said anyone was welcome to buy his company’s formula. Reid said he eventually won the lawsuit.

After Summers died in 1984, the company’s ownership and management changed between his wife, Minette, their daughter, Madelyn Reid, and her husband, Jim, and their children, Kordell Reid, John Reid and Pam Warren.

Kordell has been the company’s president since John’s passing in 2007.

He said restaurants and food services represent 85% of Marion-Kay Spices’ business.

JayC Food Stores sell two and a half times as much fried chicken, which uses Marion-Kay Spices, as Kroger stores. Reid attributes this to two reasons: The chicken tasting better and Kroger stores typically offering a wider variety of food options.

The company president prides himself on the fact that whenever a customer calls the business, there’s never an automated response and a person will always answer.

He said the key to Marion-Kay Spices’ success comes down to buying the highest quality ingredients from certain regions of the country and around the world.

Reid said all company orders go out on the same day with only a few exceptions for special blends.

California customers tend to put their orders in on Monday, Reid said, because their product will get to them before weekends, which are typically busier for restaurants.

On Tuesday, House District 73 Rep. J. Davisson delivered a proclamation to recognize the company’s milestone and presented a resolution from the Indiana House of Representatives.

He said presenting resolutions is one of the best parts in his experience working in public service, and he was proud to honor “a great American company with a rich history and commitment to community.”

House District 69 Rep. Jim Lucas also attended the event and said as a small business owner himself, he views it as a major accomplishment to see another business survive 100 years. He said Summers went beyond starting a business and making a living.