Mother Murphy’s captures the flavor of Greensboro

by Brian Clarey

“The flavor industry emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, as processed foods began to be manufactured on a large scale. … Legend has it that a German scientist discovered methyl anthranilate, one of the first artificial flavors, by accident while mixing chemicals in his laboratory. Suddenly the lab was filled with the sweet smell of grapes. Methyl anthranilate later became the chief flavoring compound of grape Kool-Aid.”

– Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

The industrial corridor that unfolds where South Elm and South Eugene streets merge is a straight shot of manufacturing plants, parts stores, builders’ supply warehouses, barbershops and beauty parlors, heavy equipment sales floors, a pawn shop and an unlikely strip mall or two.

Wrangler has a large brick presence here. The hangar-like buildings of Carolina Steel butt up against the road and a quarter mile or so back white smoke chuffs from stacks and dissipates into the atmosphere. There are churches and gas stations, bank branches and credit unions. And in a small crook formed by the interstate junction, a factory bears the serene visage of a grandmotherly woman, smiling and bespectacled, set against a field of yellow with a few green shamrocks that seem to dance in the corners of the sign.

This is Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, among the oldest and most successful businesses in Greensboro.

Its story goes back nearly a hundred years, when Greensboro physician Richard Stelling started experimenting with flavor to pay his way through the University of Georgia’s medical school and, after starting his medical practice, continued it as a hobby in the basement of his Greensboro home.

This was in the 1920s, when the art of creating and preserving flavors was mostly the province of perfume makers. But with the end of World War II came a steep rise in the already widespread manufacture of processed foods, the reasons for which are grounded in population growth, labor-saving technologies and the fast food industry.

In 1945 Stelling took on partner Kermit L. Murphy, who had been selling life insurance with Jefferson Standard, and the two began selling flavorings for breads, cakes and pastries that they made in the back room of a drug store in the Pomona neighborhood.

In the summer of 1947 they acquired 14 investors to form Southern Laboratories and within the next 15 years they had hired a full-time flavor chemist and also Kermit’s brother Pete to help with the business end of things. They built a plant on Arnold Street, changed the name to Mother Murphy’s Laboratories and later moved to the current location hre on South Elm/Eugene Street.

Since then they have become something of a boutique in an industry that is mostly located in the marshy barrens of New Jersey – a mid-sized Southern manufacturer, developer and distributor of flavors ranging from allspice to zinfandel that make their way all around the globe.

On a bulletin board in the copy room hangs a grid of Polaroids depicting every person who works for the company, including Kermit Murphy’s son David, who holds the position of president, and his daughter Janet, a vice president of customer service, along with 67 other smiling faces whose responsibilities range from driving trucks to creating flavors.

Kermit, now 90 years old and semi-retired, still checks in on the plant on a regular basis.

The Society of Flavor Chemists is a not-for-profit organization based out of New York with about 150 members throughout the world.

Becoming a member of the society is nearly as rigorous as becoming a Jesuit. Candidates must first obtain a bachelor of science in chemistry and then train for five years under a chemist who is a member of the society. Then they must pass a five-hour oral exam during which they must demonstrate proficient knowledge in the various aspects of chemically-produced flavorings, including the 5,000 or so raw materials used in several different processes. If they pass the test and are approved by two-thirds of the society at large, they will achieve apprentice status.

“It’s an elite group,” says Patricia Butler, Mother Murphy’s vice president of research and development, “and they are usually paid quite well.”

Her SFC membership certificate hangs on the wood panels of her office on the northern end of the plant, along with her bachelor’s from NC State University and other certificates and plaques from the NC Board of Sanitation Examiners, the Institute of Food Technologists and the American Society of Baking.

On her desk are pictures of her kids, bags of vanilla beans, a jar of white powder marked “blueberry,” stacks of papers and myriad vials and brown glass bottles grouped in clusters.

Earlier this week she helped develop a flavoring – a scent, really – for a dishwasher liquid, the formula for which encompasses some 40 ingredients and takes up both sides of a sheet of paper.

“It’s green apple,” she says. “You can still smell it on the paper. It’s nice.”

The word “apple” does not appear on the manifest.

Today they’re working on doughnuts. Lemon doughnuts, to be more specific. And that’s all she will say about that.

The world of flavor chemistry is rife with proprietary information, as is much of the entire food industry. Chefs have always kept their best techniques and ingredients veiled in secrecy and the products at Mother Murphy’s are similarly protected. Visitors to the labs must sign confidentiality agreements and the flavor profiles are guarded like cash money.

“All our formulas are kept secret,” Butler says. “You can’t take a written formula off these premises – someone got fired for doing that once – and you have to shred all profiles you look up.”

Competition in the industry is fierce, and espionage fairly common. But there are ways to maintain the secrecy even in the formulas themselves.

“If someone tries to copy one of our flavors, say banana, you can use all the normal ingredients and maybe throw in a teeny amount of cinnamon oil. Then when they run the mass specs and the gas chromatograph it will help disguise peaks in the profile.”

In the applications lab, Brian Schreiber is running the doughnuts through the final testing phases. Before him are four samples of product he baked this morning, each in a plastic cup labeled with a different letter of the alphabet, A through D.

This corner of the room looks like a kitchen. It is a kitchen, with a refrigerator, an oven, sinks, a pantry stocked with powdered milk and honey, a milkshake blender and a frozen drink machine. There are also cabinets filled with beakers and a gas chromatograph.

“I take the flavors and apply them to the doughnuts to get the proper usage level,” he says. “What might work in baked goods might not work in a beverage or hard candy.”

He’ll also expound on the differences between yeast doughnuts and ones made with cake flour, the subtle shades of lemon flavorings and the sometimes absurd vagaries of human taste buds.

“We can make a lemon hard candy and color it purple,” he says, “and people will swear it’s grape.”

Robin Conner, vice president of information services and one of the company’s accredited tasters, samples the wares.

She likes D the best.

“A lot of it is texture for me,” she says, “because there’s a lot of cake flour in this. A’s got a different texture for me.”

“A didn’t have enough flavor for me,” says Kris Hudson, the company’s advertising and marketing manager. “I expected lemon and I didn’t get any. If it’s a lemon doughnut, give me lemon.”

“C is my least favorite,” Conner says. But she’ll try them all again on Monday morning just to be sure.

In the human mouth, the tongue, soft palate and epiglottis are all covered with about 10,000 taste buds that differentiate between sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory flavors. Taste is also closely linked with the sense of smell, and much of what is tasted happens when aromas from masticated foods ascend into the olfactory epithelium, basically your nose. It is a combination of the two that we use to determine the true taste of something. Whether we like it or not is another matter.

Some if it is based on body chemistry and the foods we grew up with. Texture plays a role as well, but in the world of manufactured flavor texture has been rendered practically moot. The flavors exist as liquids or a powders. Their textures are nearly uniform.

They come in three categories: natural, artificial, and natural and artificial. Inside these parameters, flavors can be extracts, emulsions, water-based, oil-based, powdered and spray-dried, wherein a flavor is suspended in water and then run through a spray machine at a high temperature, allowing the water to evaporate and the flavor to precipitate and collect at the bottom.

Because of these permutations, Mother Murphy’s can boast that they make more than 5,000 flavors, and the list is varied enough to include fruits like pineapple, mango and coconut. They can make barbecued beef, sirloin, roasted pork, bacon, chicken breast, shrimp and hamburger. They can make mushroom, molasses, melon, malted milk, maple, mocha and Madeira. They make more than 300 types of butter flavor.

“Some look for a burnt taste,” says Butler from R&D. “Some want it mild or sweet. You wouldn’t use the same flavor in a muffin that you would in popcorn.”

The flavors come together in the production area at the heart of the building, a cavernous, tiled room that smells of citrus and filled with large tanks, heavy machinery and barrels of raw materials like benzaldehyde, which tastes just like almonds. A room off to the side is devoted solely to the extraction of vanilla.

“Our vanilla is truly one of the best in the industry,” says Conner. “We use vanilla beans from Madagascar in a twenty-one day cold extraction process. We’ve refined the process over sixty years.”

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, vanilla planifolia Andrews. The Madagascar vanilla orchid grows on a vine and each flower takes four to five years to produce a bean, one per bloom. They flower between October and December, each vine releasing only a couple blooms per day. They must be hand pollinated, hand picked and carefully cured before shipping. The process makes vanilla the most expensive spice on the planet.

And in the vanilla room of Mother Murphy’s there are enough boxes of the stuff to finance a summer home on the shore.

“The big thing these days,” says Charles Trout, “is food defense, which is guarding against an intentional contamination. It takes about eighty percent of my workday.”

Title III of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 deals with protecting the food and drug supply. And it has changed the way things are done around here. It’s why there are two levels of security at the plant entrance, why all external doors are locked to the outside and why Trout is so dedicated to safety and security.

“We got guys who’ve been driving a truck forty years and they get mad when we send them away because there’s no padlock on their trailer.”

And because the flavors produced here find their ways into so many products in so many places in the world, they are legitimate terrorist targets. The newer laws stipulate that they must be able to track every item forwards and backwards – from the raw materials they take in to the finished products they release – within four hours.

The work here also falls under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency (because they work with pharmaceuticals), the division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (because extracts are by definition alcohol-based – they must account for their usage by the quart), the Federal Aviation Administration (because of shipping), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Transportation, the Food and Drug Administration and a dozen other regulating agencies.

“I’m talking people with badges,” Trout says. “They have laws on the books – these are not suggestions.”

The days when a man can tinker with flavors in his basement or a room in the back of a drugstore are long gone. Far from a cottage industry, the flavor game has become a precise science as well as an art, a multi-billion dollar niche of the food industry with ties to pharmaceuticals, tobacco, fragrance and cosmetics.

It’s major. And it’s been happening here in Greensboro for 60 years, right under our noses.

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