Robert J. Vlasic, who by combining a keen sense for business with an even keener sense of humor turned his family business into the nation’s largest purveyor of pickles, gherkins, sauerkraut and a host of other briny condiments, died on May 8 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 96.
His son Bill, a former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, confirmed the death.
People have been pickling vegetables for thousands of years, and the preserving practice has long been popular in North America; George Washington is said to have collected 476 different kinds of pickles.
Still, when Mr. Vlasic was growing up in Detroit, the son of a Croatian immigrant who ran a dairy distributor, Americans consumed just 1.8 pounds of pickles per capita per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If that sounds like a lot, consider that by the time Mr. Vlasic sold his company, Vlasic Pickles, to the Campbell Soup Company in 1978, that number had more than quadrupled, to eight pounds per capita. Vlasic controlled about a quarter of the market, far outpacing its closest and much larger rival, H.J. Heinz.
The company’s success was attributable in large part to Mr. Vlasic’s management acumen. An engineer by training, he insisted that his managers keep their reports to a single page, the better to focus their attention on what mattered.
But he combined that hard-nosed boardroom behavior with a laid-back, lighthearted approach to his products. He loved pickle jokes and eventually collected them in a pamphlet, “Bob Vlasic’s 101 Pickle Jokes,” the cover of which featured a gunslinging, cowboy-hatted gherkin and this salty knee-slapper: “Who’s the toughest pickle in Dodge City? 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 wise in a voice borrowed from Groucho Marx.
“Now that’s the best-tasting pickle I ever hoid!” went one of his tag lines, delivered with a friendly leer and a wag of his pickle. “Ham up your ham! Make your toikey poiky!” went another.
If the bird’s sartorial details were odd, at least the choice of spokesman made sense: By the mid-1970s the baby boom was busting, and with birthrates down, it followed that a stork might need a new line of work. And the company had already run ads playing on the belief that pregnant women crave pickles.
“Sweetie, it’s time for your 4 o’clock pickle,” a husband tells his wife in one early Vlasic print advertisement. It was Mr. Vlasic’s kind of humor.
“We decided that pickles are a fun food,” Mr. Vlasic told The New York Times in 1974. “We decided we didn’t want to take ourselves or our business too seriously.”
Robert Joseph Vlasic was born on March 9, 1926, in Detroit. His grandfather, Frank, was a Croat who brought his family from the town of Livno, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Michigan in 1912.
Frank Vlasic opened a creamery with the money he had saved from working at an auto body plant. His son Joseph, Bob’s father, expanded the company into distribution, and soon had the largest dairy distributor in the state. Bob’s mother, Marie (Messinger) Vlasic, was a homemaker.
Mr. Vlasic graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Michigan in 1949. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Michigan and joined the family business.
By the early 1940s, the company had begun expanding into fruits and vegetables, and had landed on the idea of putting pickles in jars so they were easier to transport and store. They were a hit: Pickles were the perfect food for wartime America, where every scrap of food was saved.
As he rose in the company, Mr. Vlasic decided to move it away from distribution to production. He bought a sauerkraut plant in Imlay City, about an hour north of Detroit, and added machinery to make pickles. He signed contracts with cucumber and cabbage farmers, and he expanded into nearby states and eventually the rest of the country.
Vlasic initially sold pickles in just three styles: plain, Polish and kosher, the last being the most heavily spiced. At its height, it was selling nearly 100 products, from classic spears and stackers to fancy relishes.
When Mr. Vlasic sold his company to Campbell Soup, he insisted on a seat on the Campbell board of directors. Not only did he get one; he went on to serve as chairman of the board from 1989 to 1993. (The Vlasic label is now owned by Conagra Brands.)
Mr. Vlasic married Nancy Reuter in 1950. She died in 2016. Along with his son Bill, he is survived by four other sons, Jim, Rick, Mike and Paul; 17 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
After selling his family business, Mr. Vlasic founded and ran a technology company, O/E Automation. But he spent more and more of his time serving on nonprofit and charity boards around Michigan. He acted as a financial adviser to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, and he was the first person outside the Ford family to lead the board of the Henry Ford Hospital.
It was, his son said, the sort of work he relished.