As parents of picky eaters know, there's no getting around deeply ingrained eating habits.
So the parents of a 5-year-old Atlanta girl were dismayed to find her favorite spice — McCormick's Mediterranean Herb — suddenly missing from store shelves. They searched at area grocery stores and Walmart and found just one jar of the blend they use on fish, one of the few foods their daughter, Lara, will eat.
"There are times when we struggle to get her to eat at all," said her father, Jesse Potter. "It is to the point where she would only eat fish cooked with Mediterranean Herb. With that spice, she'll eat as much as we give her."
As a last resort, Potter sent an email to the Hunt Valley-based spice maker's CEO requesting help tracking down the product, which he learned had been discontinued.
He and his wife were floored by what happened next.
McCormick CEO Alan Wilson not only personally responded, on the same day, but also offered to have his team search the warehouses for any remaining supply. If it was gone, he told them, he would send them the recipe.
Within a week, McCormick found a case of Mediterranean Herb and shipped it to the family.
"We were blown away," Potter said.
When he offered to pay, the company declined, a worker telling him: "'We understand getting children to eat.'"
Potter, an area director for a pizza franchise chain who also has a 7-year-old son, said the family now has what amounts to a lifetime supply of the spice, and his daughter has returned to eating fish several times a week. Without the spice, she had refused fish with substitute flavorings and other home-blended spices whipped up by her mother, Ece.
"We're … so deeply impressed with Wilson and McCormick that I want to tell somebody," Potter said. "McCormick demonstrated that it cares. That was a pleasant experience, given today's corporate world and how busy we all are."
Wilson, a 20-year McCormick veteran who has been CEO, president and chairman of the $4 billion corporation since 2008, said he gets a few emails with stories similar to the Potter's every year.
"This one grabbed me," Wilson said. "I remember relocating a lot with my little kids, and kids do get focused on specific food and habits."
While Wilson's personal response to his customers may have been unusual for a large corporation, company heads are increasingly recognizing that some accessibility makes good business sense, said Bob Leffler, founder and president of Baltimore-based marketing firm the Leffler Agency.
"This is an age where the thoughtful CEOs have a duty of care," Leffler said. "This is a time to look human."
In mid-November, Apple responded to a Massachusetts teenager one hour after she emailed CEO Tim Cook complaining that the built-in dictionary on her MacBook Pro included an offensive definition of the word "gay." The third, "informal" definition of the word was "foolish; stupid."
An Apple representative told her that the dictionary came from a third-party vendor and it was shocked too, saying it would look into it.
McCormick regularly assesses how various products are selling and replaces slower-moving ones, discontinuing a couple dozen products a year, Wilson said.
Mediterranean Herb, one of McCormick's blends, "was a good product, but it wasn't selling as well as some other new products, so we decided to replace it," he said.
Wilson said he can relate to the Potters: Some of his own personal favorites, such as the Grill Mates salmon rub, have been discontinued.
"A product manager knew it was one of my favorites and had to tell me they were discontinuing it and replacing it with another seafood item," Wilson said. "He offered to grab some for me."
McCormick usually sells discontinued products to chains that buy them or to employees, or donates them to food banks, Wilson said.
With Mediterranean Herb, "We were able to find some product that was good and had not been sold or donated," he said. "It was fortunate we had the product and could send them some. I think we've built a lifelong customer."