Robert J. Vlasic Dies at 96; Made a Fortune by Making Pickles Funny

Robert J. Vlasic, who by combining a eager sense for enterprise with a good keener humorousness turned his household enterprise into the nation’s largest purveyor of pickles, gherkins, sauerkraut and a number of different briny condiments, died on Might 8 at his dwelling in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 96.

His son Invoice, a former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Instances, confirmed the demise.

Folks have been pickling greens for hundreds of years, and the preserving follow has lengthy been well-liked in North America; George Washington is alleged to have collected 476 different kinds of pickles.

Nonetheless, when Mr. Vlasic was rising up in Detroit, the son of a Croatian immigrant who ran a dairy distributor, Individuals consumed simply 1.8 kilos of pickles per capita per 12 months, based on the U.S. Division of Agriculture.

If that seems like loads, contemplate that by the point Mr. Vlasic offered his firm, Vlasic Pickles, to the Campbell Soup Firm in 1978, that quantity had greater than quadrupled, to eight pounds per capita. Vlasic managed a couple of quarter of the market, far outpacing its closest and far bigger rival, H.J. Heinz.

The corporate’s success was attributable largely to Mr. Vlasic’s administration acumen. An engineer by coaching, he insisted that his managers preserve their experiences to a single web page, the higher to focus their consideration on what mattered.

However he mixed that hard-nosed boardroom habits with a laid-back, lighthearted strategy to his merchandise. He beloved pickle jokes and ultimately collected them in a pamphlet, “Bob Vlasic’s 101 Pickle Jokes,” the duvet of which featured a gunslinging, cowboy-hatted gherkin and this salty knee-slapper: “Who’s the hardest pickle in Dodge Metropolis? Marshall Dill.”

Vlasic Pickles entered the American pop-culture pantheon in 1974 with the debut of its mascot, the Vlasic stork. Improbably bedecked in a bow tie, pince-nez glasses and a mailman’s hat, he held a pickle like a cigar and cracked sensible in a voice borrowed from Groucho Marx.

“Now that’s the best-tasting pickle I ever hoid!” went considered one of his tag strains, delivered with a pleasant leer and a wag of his pickle. “Ham up your ham! Make your toikey poiky!” went one other.

If the chook’s sartorial particulars had been odd, a minimum of the selection of spokesman made sense: By the mid-Seventies the infant growth was busting, and with birthrates down, it adopted {that a} stork would possibly want a brand new line of labor. And the corporate had already run adverts enjoying on the assumption that pregnant girls crave pickles.

“Sweetie, it’s time in your 4 o’clock pickle,” a husband tells his spouse in a single early Vlasic print commercial. It was Mr. Vlasic’s form of humor.

“We determined that pickles are a enjoyable meals,” Mr. Vlasic informed The New York Instances in 1974. “We determined we didn’t wish to take ourselves or our enterprise too severely.”

Robert Joseph Vlasic was born on March 9, 1926, in Detroit. His grandfather, Frank, was a Croat who introduced his household from the city of Livno, in what’s now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Michigan in 1912.

Frank Vlasic opened a creamery with the cash he had saved from working at an auto physique plant. His son Joseph, Bob’s father, expanded the corporate into distribution, and shortly had the most important dairy distributor within the state. Bob’s mom, Marie (Messinger) Vlasic, was a homemaker.

Mr. Vlasic graduated with a level in engineering from the College of Michigan in 1949. After serving within the Navy throughout World Conflict II, he returned to Michigan and joined the household enterprise.

By the early Forties, the corporate had begun increasing into vegetables and fruit, and had landed on the thought of placing pickles in jars so that they had been simpler to move and retailer. They had been successful: Pickles had been the right meals for wartime America, the place each scrap of meals was saved.

As he rose within the firm, Mr. Vlasic determined to maneuver it away from distribution to manufacturing. He purchased a sauerkraut plant in Imlay Metropolis, about an hour north of Detroit, and added equipment to make pickles. He signed contracts with cucumber and cabbage farmers, and he expanded into close by states and ultimately the remainder of the nation.

Vlasic initially offered pickles in simply three kinds: plain, Polish and kosher, the final being probably the most closely spiced. At its peak, it was promoting practically 100 merchandise, from traditional spears and stackers to fancy relishes.

When Mr. Vlasic offered his firm to Campbell Soup, he insisted on a seat on the Campbell board of administrators. Not solely did he get one; he went on to function chairman of the board from 1989 to 1993. (The Vlasic label is now owned by Conagra Manufacturers.)

Mr. Vlasic married Nancy Reuter in 1950. She died in 2016. Alongside together with his son Invoice, he’s survived by 4 different sons, Jim, Rick, Mike and Paul; 17 grandchildren; and 5 great-grandchildren.

After promoting his household enterprise, Mr. Vlasic based and ran a expertise firm, O/E Automation. However he spent increasingly more of his time serving on nonprofit and charity boards round Michigan. He acted as a monetary adviser to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, and he was the primary particular person outdoors the Ford household to guide the board of the Henry Ford Hospital.

It was, his son stated, the kind of work he relished.

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