Quirky Des Moines #9- The Brothers who brought Spice to Des Moines


Their spice company is the oldest in the United States and is second only to McCormick and Company.  The Tone brothers were the first company West of the Mississippi to sell roasted coffee and are credited with introducing hermetically sealed spice packages with flip tops for easy access.  Although Tone Spices the company has been sold many times in it’s long history, it started as a 4 person staff in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 1873,  Jehiel Tone convinced his brother IE Tone decided to head west from Michigan to start their own company in Des Moines. They originally sold spices and roasted coffee which before that time consisted of whole green beans roasted over wood stoves at home.  Tone became the first company in the United States to sell pure ground pepper instead of their competitors blend of ground olive pits and lamp black which is a black pigment made from soot.

IE Tone’s son, Jay Tone Sr., graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer.  He and his family used his recently acquired knowledge and started selling extracts in addition to the spices and coffee and tea products. Lemon extract would go on to become one of it’s most popular extracts.

In 1939, Jay Tone Sr. became the president of Tone Spices and he and his brother Fred introduced “pressure packed” ground coffee in cans. The pressure packing eliminated spoilage which was a common problem for their roasted coffee.  Jay Tone Sr. remained the president for another 30 years before his son, Jay Tone Jr., took over the company in 1969. Jay Tone Jr. ended the family ownership of Tone Spices when he sold the company to Mid-Continent Bottlers- another Des Moines based company that is still in business today.

Jay Tone Sr. died four years after the company was sold at the age of 100.  Mid-Continent Bottlers made major changes to the business in the 1970’s though they did keep a member of the Tone family on as the company president ( Jay Tone Jr. and his son Jay Tone III) by first discontinuing their coffee and tea sales to focus solely on spices.  A new division was created to sell to chefs and food service distributors to have a larger market.

Unfortunately, Mid-Continent Bottlers was bought by Milwaukee based Universal Foods in 1978. In 1979, Tone Spices was again on the market and was bought by a group of Des Moines investors.  Under the new ownership, Tone’s profits jumped to $12 million within two years.  They made technological improvements such as processing cryogenically ground spices (freezing and grinding the spices at extremely low temperatures up to 200 degrees below zero) and using clear plastic containers with flip tops. Tone’s annual sales were up to $50 million by the end of the 1980’s.

Tone has seen many owners since the 1980’s. They were bought by Burns Phillip & Company in 1994, who got into a spice war with McCormick by 1995 and saw their profits drop 47%. By 1996, Burns Phillip lost $62 million. It wasn’t until 2004, that ACH food companies bought the US herbs and spices businesses from Burns Phillips including the Tones spices division.  As of September 21, 2016, B&G Foods entered into an agreement with ACH to acquire the spices business of ACH Food Companies for $365 million.

Although Tone’s Spices hasn’t had the same ownership over the years and has seen some bad years profit-wise, they have continued to be a trusted provider of quality spices and extracts.  The Tone brothers probably never thought their company would still be in business in 2016 or projected to make $200-$250 million in 2017. They probably just thought Des Moines seemed like a nice place to start a spices company.


To learn more about University of Lawsonomy and it’s 30 year degree, click here. For the best places to get coffee in Des Moines, click here.

Tone’s Spices Holiday Spice Essentials 4 Pack $14.55 @ Amazon.com



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