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'Is Don, is good." Is it?

"I'm a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can't sell it as caviar." Stephen King

It's a while since I have done a 'company' post - the story of how one of those companies that dominate our foodie world came to be. Frequently they seem to be stories of plucky immigrants building an empire out of something that mum cooked in her tiny kitchen. The one I have chosen today - and honestly I don't know why I chose Don - is a little bit different. Immigrants are, of course, involved - this is Australia after all - but they are bit players here. The all important extras.


If you go to the Don website you will find an 'Our story' section, which, according to the Australian Food Time Line website, is a little bit incorrect. Don themselves tell you that the company was founded by "R. J. Gilbertson, Essendon mayor, councillor and devoted follower of the Essendon football team". (Australian Food Time Line) He was also a butcher and owned a chain of butcher shops in the Essendon area. However, he died in 1940 - and the Time Line website has the evidence to prove it - seven years before the introduction of the European style smallgoods for which Don is now famous. It was actually the manager of one of the R.J. Gilbertson shops - Vic Ord - who was not European who began the production of European style smallgoods. He may well have used the expertise of some of the immigrants who worked in the shop but he himself was not one of them. Well I assume not from his name.


Which in some ways is a tribute to Australians' openness to new ideas and particularly new foods. Well I guess the majority of Australian settlers were British and they seem to have been great absorbers of the cultures of the countries they conquered - at least in terms of food - and language.


1947 was of course a time of massive immigration waves from Europe and in Melbourne it would have been largely from southern Europe. If you lived in Adelaide it was German. So it made sense to cater to the tastes of those immigrants if you wanted to make a buck.

In 1948 the name Don was given to the newly established company and no it was not named after Don Bradman, but after its home town Essendon. This is their current logo - or one of its forms anyway. Not quite the colours of the football club (red and black) but somehow it looks like a football badge perhaps on a football shirt. Clever.


Success necessitated a move to Altona in 1951, and later to North Altona, where a large component of the workers were those immigrant bit players.


In 1988 the company was bought by Bunge - originally a Dutch company but by then established in Brazil. So no longer an Australian company, although production remained here. The Altona North factory continued working but there were also factories in Corowa and Bendigo. It was also during this time that the famous "Is good, is Don ad" was created - one of which you can see here:

It's one of those iconic ads, so an absolute boon for the company you would think. But it seems it's been an up and down road for this very Australian company (even though it isn't Australian).


In 1999 the company was bought by George Weston, a wholly owned subsidiary of Associated British Foods - so sort of European. However, the company was soon in financial trouble and in 2008 merged with Castlemaine smallgoods company KRC. Such was the financial distress that the Altona North factory was closed in 2011 and production was moved to Castlemaine, where KRC had a rather more modern factory - to the even greater distress of those immigrant bit part players, many of whom had been working there for years. Somewhere between 400 and 600 workers lost their jobs. A boon for Castlemaine no doubt but not for Altona.


These days they are on better financial footing I think and still one of the main smallgoods producers whose products you will find in your supermarket. Their ads are always in the supermarket magazines - the latest editions have two full-page ads in the Woolworths Fresh Ideas Magazine - this is one of them - and just one in the Coles Magazine.


I see that these days they also seem to creating and selling more and more snack items - such as the donskis which are kind of salami sticks but also there is popcorn bacon - a double whammy of non healthy food - bacon and deep fried - what's not to love of course - and donskis pork crackles which is, I suspect, deep fried pork crackling - so pure fat.

Not the sort of thing I buy. However I do buy shaved ham - it's a useful thing to have to hand, and Dom was apparently one of the first companies to produce shaved ham, and later shaved salami.


Smallgoods - why do we call them smallgoods? Well according to a Reddit responder to the same question:


"It seems that early Melbourne butchers may have used the word to distinguish the skills and talents to produce goods such as sausages from those skills required to produce standard meat cuts."


These days smallgoods are very fashionable in spite of their health issues. So much so that they are one of those artisan products that you can pay a fortune for. Of course there are the big producers - Don is but one of these - off the top of my head I can think of Primo and Bertocchi but hot on their heels are smaller companies such as D'Orsogna. So it's interesting that Don seems to be going downmarket rather than upmarket. Perhaps this is totally in keeping with its original footy connection, and its Australian matey image. Maybe it's not worth competing with the artisans, who surely have a rather more limited market because of their cost.


And is Don good? I won't get into the health argument here. We probably all know that ham, bacon, salami and so on are definitely not good for us. But we do like them. I checked out one set of apparently prestigious awards the AMIC (Australian Meat Industry Council) 2022 Charcuterie Excellence Awards. There were several categories and each category had a champion and also gold and silver medal awards. A bit like the wine awards. Don did not figure much in the awards, and indeed most of them went to small and artisan producers. However, they were the champions for their pepperoni chub in the Cooked Fermented Goods Category - although there was only one other competitor mentioned in this category. They also won gold medals for their mild salami stick and sliced sopressa. They didn't feature in the medals lists in any other category however. So I guess the verdict is that Don is not bad, but not always super good.


As to cost - well always cheaper to buy the stuff in the deli rather than in a packet, and Don products are sold in the deli too, and Don is marginally cheaper than its nearest competitor Primo.


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