When Vegemite started rolling off the production line in 1923, there was little to suggest it was destined to become an Australian icon.
“It was instantly and spectacularly unsuccessful,” says Jamie Callister, grandson of Vegemite inventor Cyril Callister, and author of a book about his grandfather’s life. “More jars were arriving back at the factory than were leaving it. Even the head salesman couldn’t stand it!”
In The Man Who Invented Vegemite, Callister tells how Cyril, the son of a widowed schoolteacher, became the first person in his family to go to university when he won a scholarship to study science in Melbourne.
During the First World War, Cyril was recruited to make explosives at a munitions factory in Scotland.
After the war, when he returned to Melbourne, he had his fateful meeting with food entrepreneur, Fred Walker. “Fred wanted him to come up with a home-grown version of Marmite, which had become generally unavailable during the war,” says Callister.
Working with spent brewer’s yeast from Carlton United Breweries, Cyril began the long process of trial and error that eventually resulted in the spread we know today.
Despite the disappointing debut and teetering on the brink of financial ruin several times, he and Walker retained an unshakeable belief in Vegemite. “If it wasn’t for National Australia Bank’s financial support the business and product would’ve folded,” says Callister.
But it took a combination of perseverance, clever marketing and serendipity to convince a dubious public.
“After Vegemite, Fred set Cyril the task of finding a way to process cheese so that it would keep longer; an important benefit in the days before refrigeration,” says Callister. “He succeeded, but was disappointed to discover that a Canadian by the name of James Kraft had already patented a similar process.”
Cyril persuaded Walker to go to Canada to talk to Kraft and see whether they could work together.
Six months later, Fred’s company became Kraft Walker foods and began manufacturing processed cheese. Unlike Vegemite, it was an immediate success and, in a flash of marketing brilliance, Fred started giving away a small jar of Vegemite with every block.
When a British scientist discovered that pigeons with polyneuritis (beriberi) could be cured with Vegemite, he started marketing it as a source of Vitamin B and an all-round wonder food. “They made outrageous claims that it would just about cure any ailment,” says Callister.
By the late 1930s, the health message had been taken up by baby health centres. “They sold Vegemite to parents as something nutritious that children couldn’t wipe off their bread,” says Callister. “That was a watershed moment because Vegemite became a staple food for Australian babies.”
Fred and Cyril extended their entrepreneurial spirit further into the business world. “Fred pioneered the concept of a tea break, and he was rewarded with increased production. They both encouraged staff to do further education at a time when most would’ve left school at 13. And Fred was very interested in time and motion studies, using the results to make life easier for his workers.” Cyril also broke ground by employing the best man for the job even if ‘he’ happened to be a woman.
Today, the Kraft plant in Port Melbourne produces 23 million jars of Vegemite every year. As Callister says, whether you like the black stuff or not, there’s a remarkable story behind its success.