As America began its experiment with Prohibition in the early 1920s, some Michiganians concocted illegal spirits in their bathtubs. However, at least one Detroiter reportedly used his bathtub to grow bean sprouts. From such modest beginnings sprang the Chinese food brand La Choy.
The origins of La Choy can be traced to Ilhan New, a native Korean who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan in 1919. Two years after leaving Ann Arbor, New was managing of a Detroit business called La Choy Products. (The word supposedly means â€œgood vegetablesâ€ in a Chinese dialect.) At about this time, Wallace Julian Smith, a University of Michigan graduate from Evart, Michigan, came into the La Choy story.
New and Smith were not only former classmates and friends, but soon became business associates. Smith sold New’s bean sprouts in his grocery store, marketing them in small paper cartons and wooden boxes. While the bean sprouts were popular with Smith’s customers, the tender seedlings had a short shelf life and turned brown rather quickly. It soon became evident that if the exotic vegetable was going to be sold on a retail basis it would have to be preserved in some fashion.
New received financial backing from some well-connected Detroiters and began packaging and distributing Chinese food in glass (which was soon abandoned) and tin containers. On January 30, 1922, La Choy officially entered the business world when articles of incorporation were filed. In a matter of years, the company became one of Detroit’s most successful food manufacturers.
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Absolute Michigan notes that Muppet creator, Jim Henson, produced a series of eleven TV commercials for La Choy from 1965 to 1969 that featured Delbert the La Choy Dragon. Enjoy!