Historic Detroit

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La Choy Food Products

La Choy is known around the country for its line of Asian food products, but what is not as widely known is that the company was founded in Detroit.

Despite starting out offering a line of Chinese cuisine, it was acutally founded by a Korean immigrant, Ilhan New. New was born in Pyongyang, in what is now North Korea, and immigrated to Hastings, Neb., when he was 9 years old in 1904. He played football and was on his high school debate team. He left Nebraska to attend the University of Michigan, paying his way through school with a job at a Detroit Edison substation. After college, he worked for Michigan Central Railroad in Detroit and spent some time at General Electric in New York before returning to Detroit. He started the company with his college friend Wallace Smith, whom he met while studying at the University of Michigan.

Meanwhile, Wallace Smith, one of New's classmates at U-M, was running a corner grocery store in Detroit. The native of Evart, in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula, wanted to meet his restaurant customers' demand for mung bean sprouts, a key ingredient in chop suey.

So Smith called up his old friend New, who grew an experimental first crop of sprouts in bathtubs in his basement. The pair learned that fresh mung bean sprouts don't have a very long shelf life, so the two men preserved and sold them in glass jars. Their packaged goods company, La Choy Food Products Inc., was incorporated in Detroit in 1922.

In short order, La Choy's business line expanded to offer a variety of packaged Asian foods including chow mein noodles, sauces and a variety of preserved specialty vegetables. It offered fermented soy sauce imported from China as early as the 1920s and later offered its own hydrolized vegetable protein soy sauce in the 1960s. The company at one point was the largest user of Michigan-grown celery in the nation, processing 5,000 tons of it annually. La Choy also printed recipe pamphlets by the millions to promote its products, helping to encourage American home cooks to experiment with Chinese cuisine.

Business was good, and La Choy built a new office and factory at 8100 Schoolcraft Road in 1937. (The company was previously located in the Detroit Harbor Terminal building.) By that time, New had moved on from La Choy; in 1926, he moved back to Korea and started a pharmaceutical company, Yuhan Corp. He sold his shares of La Choy around 1930.

New made his name in Korea through Yuhan, which he founded in Japanese-occupied Korea on the belief that "only healthy people can reclaim their sovereignty." Yuhan made New rich, and New in turn enriched the community; he created an employee stock ownership program, established several schools and scholarships and, upon his death in 1971, donated almost all of his fortune to create a public foundation — an uncommon bequest in Korea at the time.

Wallace Smith was killed by lightning in 1937, not long after La Choy's new factory opened for business. Smith's widow, Miriam, took over his share of the company. During World War II, La Choy sold its Detroit plant to the Department of Defense and relocated operations to Archbold, Ohio, Miriam's hometown — where it would also stay in close contact with Michigan celery producers, Pennsylvania mushroom growers and Ohio's tomato belt.

By 1937, it was "reputed to be Detroit's leading food industry as far as national distribution is concerned," The Detroit News wrote June 13, 1937. The company claimed to have distributed 8 million copies of the La Choy cookbook "The Art and Secrets of Chinese Cookery" by that time. It was using an old warehouse at 4461 W. Jefferson Ave. for production.

The new plant

The company decided to build a modern, 60,000-square-foot factory on a 2-acre site at Schoolcraft Avenue just west of Oakman Boulevard. Architects Giffels & Vallet of Detroit were hired to design it. A.W. Kutsche & Co. of Detroit was general contractor for the steel-, concrete- and brick-construction building. It was built with two stories, but its foundation allowed for additional floors to be added in the future. The company also owned an additional acre behind the building in case of the need for expansion.

"The architects have chosen a streamline design for the building and the construction style will provide maximum light for all the factory and office rooms," The Detroit News wrote June 13, 1937. "It also will have many features recently developed by scientific research for plants in which foods are processed and packed."

Ground was broken in late June 1937. The building was expected to be completed just a few months later, by Oct. 1, but wouldn't be formally opened until January 1938. However, some of La Choy's machinery was transfered to the new plant and operations partially under way before then.

Manufacturing was conducted on the ground floor, as was warehousing. The company's general offices were on the second, as was storage, which delivered materials to the production lines below by gravity conveyors. The basement housed a 50,000-cubic-foot refrigeration room, and two smaller ones at 600 cubic feet each. All of the prepared foods were moved and packaged by automatic machines and not touched by hands.

Starting in 1939, La Choy financed a program to develop domestic sources of Chinese food ingredients. Technicians were employed and scholarships established at five universities. Though that would help with sourcing ingredients, it wouldn't help them keep their products on the shelves.

In 1942, La Choy's production was halted because of restrictions on tin for metal cans and difficulties importing goods during the war. The company decided to move its operations to Archbold, Ohio, to prepare food products deemed essential to the war program and focus on "dehydrated agricultural products, canned seasonal fruit, vegetable and grain specialties," the Detroit News reported June 19, 1942.

But hungry Americans had nothing to fear, as "The company's sauces will continue to be available and other Chinese specialties will be packed in whatever containers are made available by the government."

Good thing, too, as a 1951 ad, said, because, "Everybody loves dishes with a Chinese 'accent' ... and now you can make 'em at home quickly and economically. How? With La Choy Bean Sprouts and La Choy Mixed Chinese Vegetables ... for this 'talented twosome' gives exotic enchantment to soups, salads, casseroles and leftovers!" The company also had a line of heat-and-eat Chinese dinners, cashing in on TV dinner fad.

Chop suey

The United States Defense Plant Corp. bought the La Choy plant on Schoolcraft for war use. Micromatric Hone Corp, which changed its name in August 1929 from the Jeschke Tool Co. when it was still operating out of 14220 Mack Ave. The firm manufactured cylinder hones, used in auto manufacturing.

Meanwhile, La Choy caught the eye of George A. Gardella, the Detroit-based district manager for Chicago-based Beatrice Foods. The Beatrice Creamery Co. acquired La Choy on Sept. 28, 1943. Beatrice was a mega-conglomerate that acquired a slew of other companies during the 1940s and '50s, including other well-known, Detroit-born brands Mario Olives and Country Crock.

Gardella began his career making deliveries by horse-drawn wagon for the Beatrice-owned Fox River Butter Co. Promoted to district manager for Beatrice in 1937, Gardella was a key player in persuading company leaders to expand beyond the dairy business. La Choy was the company's first nondairy acquisition.

Micromatic ran the plant on Uncle Sam's behalf from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945, opting to buy the plant and its equipment for $550,000. The company completed a reinforced-concrete-and-steel expansion of the factory in 1952, which nearly doubled the size of the facility and allowed for the installation of an overhead crane.

By 1945, La Choy was back operating in Detroit, out of 16840 Hamilton, though it remained based out of Ohio.

In 1963, Ex-Cell-O, a toolmaker, bought Micromatic and continued operations there. However, just a few years later, Ex-Cell-O ran into money problems and decided to close several of its plants in Detroit. The former Micromatic factory was closed in 1971 and its operations relocated to the west side of the state, in Holland, Mich. The plant was then purchased in the 1970s by the U.S. Fastener Corp., but went bust in 1986. After that, the building was taken over by Gilreath Manufacturing for custom-injection moldings for auto parts. Gilreath operated out of the building until 1997.

After that, the property was used as a junkyard for the Gilchrist Towing Co. until about 2009, and then abandoned. "The upper floors of the warehouse are filled with pallets of plastic auto components left over from Gilreath Manufacturing, like radiator caps and pieces of trim," DetroitUrbex.com noted. "Scrappers began picking away at the building, removing pipe, wires, and the metal stairs. Either by accident or on purpose, several fires broke out in the warehouse in December of 2012."

That led to the most dangerous part of the building being demolished in March 2013, but the rest remained for almost another decade.

Over the fall and winter of 2021, the former Detroit La Choy factory was put on the City of Detroit's list of 100 blighted commercial properties targeted for demolition or redevelopment. Known internally as "the M100," -- shorthand for the "mayor's 100" list of worst of the worst blighted structures in the city -- the properties were fast-tracked for demolition or redevelopment.

The La Choy factory would find itself fast-tracked for the former.

On July 7, 2022, the Detroit City Council approved $1.6 million in federal pandemic relief dollars to demolish the remains of the factory, removing a blighted eyesore from along the forthcoming Joe Louis Greenway set to replace an abandoned rail corridor next door.

As for La Choy, after another half-century of acquisitions, Beatrice's fortunes began to flag. In the mid-1980s, the company was acquired through an $8.7 billion leveraged buyout by investment firm KKR and sold off in pieces. (The company's international holdings were purchased by Reginald Lewis; that company, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., became the largest Black-owned company in the U.S.)

Today, La Choy is owned by ConAgra Foods, and its products are still made in Archbold.

This article reprints, with permission, content from Amy Elliott Bragg's article for Crain's Detroit Business on La Choy Food Products, "The surprising Detroit stories behind La Choy, Mario Olives and Country Crock."

Last updated 27/07/2022