Vita-Mix story tells of the birth of a salesman

WHEN Mrs. Ruth Barnard starts setting the table and doing other last-minute preparations for dinner in her Olmsted, Ohio, home, her husband, William Grover Barnard Jr., picks up a packet of hard Western dry wheat. The idea is that he will turn that wheat into a loaf of fresh-baked bread in about the same time (around 25 minutes) it takes his wife to get ready to serve. If the two of them have timed their respective duties correctly (and they usually do), dinner and fresh bread arrive at the table simultaneously.

Sound exaggerated? Not at all. I did it the other day (with a little additional time for reading the directions) using the same tools -- a microwave oven and a remarkable machine known as the Vita-Mix.

I have owned a Vita-Mix for the past three years and used it for most of the things it is designed for -- making juice, pur'eeing foods, grinding corn, cooking soups and sauces, and even freezing fruit sherbet. But until I met the Barnards, I had never had the courage to use the machine for breadmaking.

Somehow kneading dough, even bouncing the doughball on those spinning blades, seemed to demand the touch of an expert. It doesn't, as I found out the other day, and with a little practice, I'm told, I should soon develop the same speedy proficiency as Bill Barnard. What the whole exercise clearly illustrated is that even very busy people can enjoy homemade, freshly baked bread every day.

Mr. Barnard, of course, is the total expert with the machine. He should be. He's spent most of his life developing it to its present stage and currently is president of the company that makes what might be termed the Rolls-Royce of kitchen blenders. No other machine is so diverse that its spinning blades can both freeze and cook foods, grind grains, and knead dough; no other is asked to turn a piece of 2-by-4 framing lumber into sawdust as its final test before releasing it to the public.

If Mr. Barnard's father, ``Papa Barnard,'' had not lost his shirt when the bottom fell out of land values in the depression years, this versatile kitchen appliance might never have come about. The late Mr. Barnard went $10,000 in debt, a tidy sum back then, so he took to selling things to get out of the hole and found it was something he could do pretty well. So well, in fact, that simply by selling can openers for 25 cents apiece at fairs around the country or wherever he could find an audience, he pai d off his debts and laid the foundation for a success story that fits the American dream scenario to a T.

Early on, Papa B. saw that one key to success in selling was to have a product that could readily be demonstrated to an audience at country fairs and similar shows. Then, if you had a knack for demonstrating and could be something of an entertainer at the same time, you had it made as a salesman.

The can opener that pulled Barnard out of the financial hole fitted this requirement to the letter. It was the now common wheel cutter. But back in the 1930s it was a cut above the others of the day. It gave a clean cut, compared with the jagged edges produced by the punch-and-lift devices of the time. It wasn't selling all that well until Barnard took it on the road. Folks liked what they saw, and despite the poor economic times, reached into their pockets for enough spare silver to lift Barnard out of

debt in a few short years. He even accumulated enough capital to do something else -- go into the blender business. ``But it couldn't be just any old blender,'' as the junior Barnard recalls. Like the can openers, it had to offer the public something extra.

At the time the Barnards (father and son had become partners in the selling business) were looking for another product line. They came across a blender imported from Europe that looked like the sort of product they could demonstrate very effectively in front of the crowds. It was used to mix liquids and pur'ee very soft foods. If it could be beefed up to pur'ee uncooked foods as well, it might be that much more of a crowd pleaser, the Barnards believed. So they went to an engineering friend who was tink ering around with a similar machine and had him make up an appropriately vigorous model. They called it the Vita-Mix and it sold well right from the start. That was in 1937.

In 1949 Papa Barnard returned from a California show with the news that he had sold 1,000 of the blenders in just a few days. ``If they sell that well in front of small crowds,'' Bill Jr. asked, ``what will they do in front of a vast audience?'' He had recently bought his first television set and he reckoned he had an idea worth trying.

At that time there were plenty of products advertised on television, but no one had thought of actually demonstrating one. Indeed, when Barnard presented his idea to a Cleveland TV station, it was looked on as a good way to fill up the evening's program. What folks got that Saturday evening was a half-hour packed with solid information and the sort of wisecracking entertainment the Barnards delivered before fairground audiences everywhere.

After the show was over the Barnard telephone started ringing, ``and the last one came plumb on 4:30 in the morning,'' Bill Barnard recalls. ``We sold 650 machines that night.''

For two years Sstation WEWS, Channel 5, ran that show as a regular Saturday evening repeat, and a New York City station picked it up as a regular feature in 1950.

With that sort of publicity the Barnards realized their blender business was set to roll for many decades if they could keep making steady improvements. ``If you listen hard,'' the junior Barnard says, ``people will tell you what they like about your product, what they don't like, and if you're very lucky, they might even tell you what they'd like to see added.''

The Barnards listened and found that people wanted something that would not only pur'ee foods but would turn fruits and vegetables into instant juice, wheat into flour, corn into cornmeal, and peanuts into peanut butter. They wanted durability and power, particularly power. To give the customers what they wanted, the Barnards used a motor that rightfully belongs in a workshop powering a 10-inch circular saw, and a stainless steel container and blades to take the abuse such a motor could give out.

More recently, one of Bill Barnard's sons discovered that by reversing the polarity of the motor they could reverse the blades instantly. The effect of this was to bring the blade tip smashing against the food at better than 500 m.p.h. Now a standard test for the Vita-Mix is to throw a piece of framing lumber into the machine. If it grinds the wood to sawdust in short order, the Barnards reckon it will do anything you want it to do in the kitchen.

Once a Vermont farm wife switched on her Vita-Mix and promptly dropped to the floor as rifle shots began ringing out all over the kitchen. When the noise died down she got up and switched off the still-whirring machine. That's when she discovered that a package of her husband's .22 rifle shells had fallen off the shelf into her Vita-Mix. The spinning blades had detonated all the shells, and, while the container was somewhat dented, no bullet had penetrated its walls. Moreover, the now somewhat mis shapen blades could still spin with vigor.

``We like to know how good the machine came through that test,'' says Bill Barnard Jr., ``but we don't go around recommending that other folks try it.'' Vita-Mix's half-hour bread

The Vita-Mix's power doesn't come cheap. Current price of the blender runs at around $400, which with the present high value of the United States dollar has all but cut off the export market, though a small ``quality at any price'' demand still comes in from overseas.

How does one get half-hour bread from a machine like this? Once you get the knack of doing it, you can go from the raw wheat to dropping the kneaded dough in a baking pan in less than 5 minutes without ever having to touch the dough with your hands. The rest of the time is taken up in raising the dough and baking it. 2 cups whole kernel wheat (generous measure) 1 3/4 cups cold water (more if needed) 1 package or 1 tablespoon dry yeast 1 tablespoon oil (optional) 1 tablespoon honey (optional) 1 teaspoon salt (optional)

Grind wheat in Vita-Mix on high setting for 2 minutes or longer. Add other ingredients -- water first. Mix on ``high,'' setting using four quick full-up, full-down strokes. Stop. Scrape down walls with spatula. Knead by rapidly tapping down on the red lever for a few seconds and instantly releasing it. Stop. Push dough down with rubber spatula. Repeat this kneading process half a dozen times or until doughball forms (with this rapid staccato tapping you can actually bounce the doughball on the blades).

Invert container and allow ball to fall into glass or microwave loaf pan. It is not necessary to grease pan. Let loaf rise in microwave using defrost setting. Place small plastic cups, paper cups, or glasses filled with water at each corner and at the center of each long side. This is done to absorb part of the heat. (Some microwaves have a very low setting that can be used for raising bread without the need of water-filled cups.) When dough rises to top of pan (this can vary from a few minutes to 20 mi nutes depending on the microwave), remove water cups, and set on high for baking.

Bake 10 minutes. Invert loaf over breadboard. Tap edge sharply until loaf falls out. Allow to dry. Eat. It's really that simple.

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