His face is familiar to anyone who has ever eaten canned ravioli, but you might not know his story.
Hector Boiardi, born in 1897, was born in Italy, where he began working at a hotel in his hometown when he was 11 (“child labor” meant something a little different in the early 1900s.) After immigrating to America at the age of 16, he got a job at New York’s Plaza Hotel, according to NPR’s All Things Considered. His brother Paul worked there as maitre d’hotel.
At this point in history, fine dining was synonymous with French food, according to NPR. Italian food wasn’t on the radar. But after rising to the rank of head chef at the Plaza, he started to put food from his birth country on the menu. He was still a teenager.
And during those years, Boiardi also directed the catering for Woodrow Wilson’s second wedding, to Edith Galt in 1915. The wedding, which took place after a brief courtship, was held at Galt’s Washington, D.C. home.
In 1917, NPR writes, he moved to Cleveland, where in 1924 he opened a restaurant with his wife Helen Boiardi. Writes History.com:
Il Giardino d’Italia, “The Garden of Italy” in English, soon became one of Cleveland’s top eateries with customers regularly lining up to wait for tables and dine on Boiardi’s signature cooked-to-order spaghetti with its savoury sauce and tangy cheese. The dish was so popular that patrons wanted to make it for themselves at home, so Boiardi began to assemble take-out meal kits that included dried pasta, cheese and cleaned milk bottles filled with marinara sauce along with instructions on how to cook, heat and assemble the meal.
The take-out business got big enough that the family started thinking about selling their sauce on a larger scale. And in 1928, the Chef Boiardi Food Company was born, launched by Hector, Helen, and Hector’s brothers Paul and Mario. Its first product: spaghetti dinner, including a canister of grated parmesan, a box of spaghetti and a jar of sauce.
Although the product sold well, the company name was a sticking point. “Everyone is proud of his family name but sacrifices were necessary for progress,” Boiardi said, according to History.com. At first, the revised name was Boy-ar-dee, a phonetic spelling of how the family name was pronounced.
The rechristened company’s first factory was located in Milton, Pennsylvania, writes NPR. That was the town where its tomatoes were grown, and the company even grew mushrooms inside the factory.
The Milton factory started operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 1942, according to the company website. That was because Chef Boyardee meals were included in American soldiers’ rations. After the war, the Boiardi family sold the company—according to a Boiardi descendant who spoke to NPR, selling to a larger company was the only way to keep all the the factory workers employed.
The company, which is today known for its canned meals, especially its ravioli, has changed hands a number of times since. Hector Boyardee himself died a millionaire in 1985. But his face—like his name, or at least the phonetic spelling of it—endures on the label of every can.