A lot of things have happened to Old Bay seasonings since it was taken over by McCormick & Co. Inc. in August 1990. But two things have not changed: the seasoning's distinctive yellow and blue 6-ounce can and the spicy recipe itself.
And they won't change if Debra L. Botterill, the brand manager for Old Bay, has anything to say about it.
"The last thing I want to do is to upset a consumer who has been buying this product for years," she said.
A blend of celery salt, mustard, pepper, ginger and several other spices, Old Bay is a longtime favorite seasoning for crab fanciers in the Chesapeake region.
It was created in 1939 by Gustav C. Brunn, a refugee from Germany who started Baltimore Spice Co. In its 53 years of existence, the seasoning developed a national following. People use it to season virtually everything from french fries and pizza to popcorn.
Now, McCormick is throwing its marketing muscle behind an expanded line of Old Bay products.
At the time of the purchase two years ago, Hunt Valley-based McCormick also bought three prepackaged mixes from Baltimore Spice: Crab Cake Classic, Salmon Classic and Tuna Classic. And the company added one product last year and four products this spring calculated to appeal to an even wider audience.
McCormick has also expanded the number of stores offering the seasonings from 52 percent of the nation's food outlets to 57 percent. As a result, sales have jumped by 50 percent over the past two years.
But some things haven't changed.
The company is intent on keeping the customer loyalty built up over the years and assuring that it not be diminished by any change in the name or look of the product. In fact, there is no mention of McCormick on the packaging.
Instead, the label says the product is "manufactured for" Old Bay Company Inc. of Baltimore. However, the Old Bay products are made in the same factories as other McCormick products. "These are entirely different products," Ms. Botterill said, explaining why the McCormick name is not present. "It may confuse the consumer."
Ms. Botterill worked for 17 years for Baltimore Spice before moving over to McCormick in 1990. She and two clerical workers were the only Baltimore Spice employees to make the switch.
In her position at McCormick, she is the chief defender of the Old Bay tradition, and one of her fights has been to retain the tin can instead of switching to plastic bottles, which are used for most of McCormick's products.
"There are customers who can't remember the name of the brand, but they remember it's in a yellow and blue can," she said. "Changing the can would not be a good idea."
L The recipe is also off-limits to change, Ms. Botterill said.
In March, the company introduced a 2.62-ounce bottle of Old Bay that Ms. Botterill calls the shaker bottle. This is an Old Bay bottle that can be put into a glove compartment or purse, she said. "Don't leave home without it."
Also in March, three new products were introduced: Better Batter, a seasoned batter mix; Seafood One-Step, a shrimp and crab boil; and Dash o'Lemon, a blend of Old Bay and lemon. A year before that, the company had introduced Dip & Crisp, a seasoned breading.
The breading and the batter is intended to appeal to non-crab eaters in the rest of the United States who might want to use it on fish, shrimp or poultry, said Ben Frustaci, national distributor sales manager for McCormick.
To further accommodate these tastes, the spice in the breading and batter has been toned down somewhat. But true Old Bay lovers can overcome this by adding more Old Bay, Ms. Botterill said.
Seafood One-Step is a pouch of whole spices that can be used in boiling shrimp or crab. This allows the customer to get the Old Bay flavor without putting the seasoning directly on the food.
Dash o'Lemon combines two of the most favored seafood seasonings -- lemon and Old Bay. "We expect this will turn the seafood business on its ear," Ms. Botterill said.