What's a Trade Secret? (And What Would Happen if You Stole The Colonel's?)

iStock
iStock

Earlier this week, KFC removed Colonel Harland Sanders' original handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices that go into the company's signature fried chicken from its safe storage place. The 68-year-old recipe had been resting in a locked filing cabinet inside a vault at the company's Louisville headquarters, and it was only removed under the watchful eyes of many guards so the company could upgrade the security around the piece of paper. Why all the fuss? Are these measures just publicity-seeking theatrics for KFC? Why does KFC need to keep the recipe under lock and key anyway?

The KFC recipe is part of a larger class of corporate knowledge known as trade secrets. Broadly defined, a trade secret is a process (think of things like Web search algorithms), formula, practice, design, or other secret information to which the public doesn't have access that allows a company to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of its industry. In this case, KFC feels that its spice blend enables the company to make particularly delicious chicken that's differentiated from the rest of the fried-chicken market. The public seems to agree; KFC raked in over $5 billion in domestic sales last year. If another chicken company got their hands on this spice blend, they could conceivably replicate the delicious fried poultry and effectively eat away at KFC's market share. As such, KFC maintains its recipe as a trade secret to keep competitors at bay.

If KFC wants to protect its recipe, why doesn't it just get a patent?

Because then the cat would be out of the bag on what the 11 spices are. In order to acquire a patent, a company has to give pretty exhaustive information on what it's patenting to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If the office granted a patent, the information would then become public. Although KFC would have a temporary monopoly (usually for 20 years) on that particular recipe, every chicken shack owner in the country could start toying with the recipe, making little tweaks to it, and potentially coming up with something even better. None of that would be good for the Colonel. But by keeping the recipe a closely guarded secret, the company can theoretically keep its advantage forever. Since apparently no one has the first clue what the 11 spices are, much less the proportions in which they're mixed, the company can feel safe as long as it guards the recipe.

Companies with these sorts of trade secrets generally make employees sign non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements, so the select few who get to see the recipe don't run off and start their own chicken businesses. Anyone who tries to swipe a trade secret through espionage should be ready for a lot of legal liability and potential jail time. Just ask Kate Hudson, who came under fire last month for allegedly pilfering a trade secret in the formulation of her new hair-care products.

Does that mean there's no way we'll ever see another company selling KFC's chicken?
Not quite. One downside of a trade secret is that it's perfectly legal for competitors to try to reverse engineer someone else's product. You want to make KFC chicken legally? Get in the kitchen and tinker with spice blends until you figure out the one that tastes just like it. Alternatively, if a chef serendipitously came up with the spice blend independently without sneaking a peak at KFC's recipe, she could start legally trafficking in the bird.

The KFC spice blend is just one example of a jealously guarded trade secret, though. Here are a few other notable ones:

The Coca-Cola Formula
The Coca-Cola formula, which is known by the code name "Merchandise 7X," is possibly the best-known trade secret in the world. The formula, which dates back to the drink's 1886 invention by Joseph S. Pemberton, is written on a piece of paper that resides in an Atlanta bank. Despite decades of attempts to figure out the formula, no one has succeeded yet; these failures are why the knock-off store brand sodas you buy never taste quite like the real thing. Coke is not afraid to go to great lengths to maintain the secrecy of the formula. In 1977 the Indian government demanded that the company reveal the recipe to keep its ability to sell the beverage in India. Coke decided it would rather leave the market altogether rather than give up its secret; you couldn't buy a Coca-Cola in India until the government relented in 1993.

McDonald's "Special Sauce"
We all know the Big Mac jingle. What we don't know is exactly how to make the sauce. The burger itself was originally conceived in Pittsburgh to compete with Big Boy's signature burger, but it was so popular it had to get a national audience. The sauce is pretty analogous to Thousand Island dressing, but the actual formulation remains a secret sought by beef aficionados everywhere.

The Krispy Kreme Recipe
Krispy Kreme opened in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1937 after founder Vernon Rudolph bought a secret recipe for yeast donuts from a New Orleans chef. Despite the company's meteoric rise over the last seven decades, the recipe remains locked in a vault in Winston-Salem and is known by only a select few. (As someone who went to college in Winston-Salem and ate way too many Krispy Kremes, my educated guess is that the secret ingredient is either awesomeness or love. Possibly both.)

Google AdWords
AdWords is Google's advertising product that places pay-per-click banner and text ads throughout the Web and provides site-targeted ads. The system is certainly successful; it pulled in over $16 billion last year. How do the ads get placed on individual pages, though? Good question, but it's one that will remain a mystery since the algorithm is a trade secret.

Gillette Razor Designs
Here's an example of why you don't want to steal a trade secret. In 1997, Wright Industries was helping Gillette design a new razor that was extremely confidential and potentially valuable. Wright Industries employee Steven L. Davis worried that his job was in jeopardy and had a grudge against his supervisor, so he swiped a bunch of trade secrets, including drawings of razor designs and data and sent them to Bic, Warner-Lambert, and other competitors. Bad move. The 1996 Congressional passing of the Economic Espionage Act made stealing trade secrets a federal crime. Davis pled guilty to five counts of theft of trade secrets and received a sentence of 27 months in jail and over a million dollars in fines.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.
* * * * *

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

Harry & David Just Released a Cats-Inspired Gourmet Gift Collection

Harry & David
Harry & David

Year after year, Harry & David proves itself to be the undefeated champion of helping people gain the favor of tough-to-please recipients on their holiday gift lists. From baskets of cheese to buckets of popcorn, there’s a gourmet food—or collection of foods—for pretty much everyone.

This Christmas, the company has partnered with Universal Pictures to release a line of deluxe gifts that all evoke the enchanting, sophisticated style of the upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical Cats.

The products don’t come with cat ears, furry bodysuits, or pint-sized action figures of Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and the rest of the star-studded cast. Instead, in true Harry & David fashion, the gifts are decorated with tasteful Cats ribbons and subtle touches of black and gold.

The simplest option for anyone with a sweet tooth is the $30 Classic Sweets Box, which includes dark chocolate-covered pretzels, raspberry galettes, dark chocolate truffles, and Harry & David’s signature Moose Munch popcorn. For healthy eaters or fans of fruit in general, there’s a box of Royal Riviera pears, hand-wrapped in gold foil, which you can purchase with (for $70) or without (for $50) a bottle of Pinot Gris. There are also a few larger dessert baskets with a broad assortment of truffles, caramels, popcorn, chocolate-covered cherries, and more mouthwatering confectioneries.

Though you’d be ill-advised to share most of those desserts with your actual cat, they might be able to enjoy the savory meats from the other boxes and baskets—after all, cats can have a little salami. Items include sausage, salami, smoked salmon, pepper jack cheese, sharp white cheddar cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, water crackers, and roasted almonds, among other things.

In summary, the Cats collection is ideal for these demographics: people who like Cats the musical, people who like Cats the movie, people who like gift baskets, people who like gifts, and people who eat food.

You can shop all the options here, and find out everything you need to know about Cats the movie here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER