When it comes to the history of Don Smallgoods, it’s another case of “don’t let the facts spoil a good story”. According to the Don website:
Since 1947, the DON® name has been synonymous with ham, bacon and Smallgoods Australia-wide. This recognition stems from a passion and dedication to quality, first instilled by Australian butcher R.J. Gilbertson. Out of a small Essendon store he began producing a range of processed meats that stayed true to the curing tradition of Smallgoods found in Europe, and through this steadfast commitment to quality his business became one of the biggest names in the Australian food landscape.
The sad truth is that R. J. Gilbertson, Essendon mayor, councillor and devoted follower of the Essendon football team, died seven years before Don Smallgoods were invented. Gilbertson was, indeed, a butcher and even served as chairman of Victorian Master Butchers’ Ltd. He owned a chain of butcher shops, which continued to be known by his name after his death. It was in one of these stores, at 15 Keilor Road, Essendon, that the manager, Vic Ord, oversaw the introduction of a range of European-style smallgoods.
Again, for the sake of the legend, the Don website stretches the truth somewhat:
R.J Gilberton’s idea of employing European butchers to make great European smallgoods to the good folk of Essendon has grown into a thriving company that prides itself on delighting Australians every day with the simple pleasure of good food.
The name Don, from the last three letters of Essendon, was adopted the following year. A story circulating at one time that the name honoured Sir Donald Bradman, “the Don”, was a furphy.
By 1951, demand for the range was sufficient to require the construction of a factory in Altona and the enterprise was incorporated as Don Smallgoods Co. Pty in 1952. The company continued to expand over the next two decades, moving to a larger factory in Altona North in 1970.
Like many locally owned companies, in the 1980s Don became the target for a multi-national. Bunge was founded in Amsterdam but, in the early 20th century, moved its headquarters to the major meat-producing country of Brazil. In 1988 Bunge added to its meat empire by acquiring the Don business. It was during the Bunge ownership that the famous “Is Don. Is Good” advertising campaign created a truly continental persona for a brand that had long been all-Australian.
The ownership changed again in 1999 when the business was sold to George Weston Foods (GWF), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Associated British Foods. GWF is one of Australia and New Zealand’s largest food manufacturers employing over 6,000 people across 40 sites and with a diverse range of product categories and brands.
It seems the DON business initially failed to thrive under the new ownership. It was reported in 2008 that the company had been in serious financial trouble for more than a decade. This led GWF to close the Altona North Factory in 2011 and amalgamate the manufacturing operations with those of KR Castlemaine, a ham and smallgoods company they had acquired three years earlier. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. KR Castlemaine, based in country Victoria, itself had a history stretching back to the introduction of the KR brand of hams and bacon in 1911.
The business continues to operate, producing both Don and KR brands. The Don range includes hams, bacon, salami, luncheon meats, “continentals” and that very European product, Footy Franks.