So what’s his secret?
It goes back to the ‘sensible’ moniker, says Larry Praeger, the son of the firm’s founder, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Peter Praeger (who died in 2012). “It was always about ‘sensible’ foods, not diet foods. My father wanted patients recovering from heart surgery to have something healthy and tasty to eat.”
Dr Praeger did not, however, have ambitions to run a frozen foods empire, and the business - based in Elmwood Park, N.J. - started almost by accident, as a result of a horrific car accident: Dr Praeger saved a man’s life, and wound up performing radical surgery on a business belonging to the man’s brother-in-law.
The rabbi said, the man who saved your life is going to save your brother-in-law's company
The story started in the late 1980s, when Dr. Praeger and colleague Dr. Eric Somberg conducted emergency heart surgery on a man with a ruptured aorta who had been hit by a drunk driver. He was paralyzed in the accident, but thanks to the surgeons’ efforts, he survived.
Rubin Ungar - the patient’s brother-in-law and regular visitor to the hospital - told Dr. Praeger that the family rabbi predicted his relative would regain the use of his limbs.
He never walked again, says Larry Praeger, but against all the odds, “he started to move his fingers, and he regained some functionality in his arms.”
Around 18 months later Ungar got back in touch to report that his brother-in-law was doing better. However, Ungar’s business - Ungar’s Gefilte Fish, which made kosher fish dishes popular in the Jewish community - was in big trouble.
In the next few years, Praeger and Somberg - who were experts at rescuing people, not struggling businesses - stayed in touch, and helped out, but finally grasped the nettle in 1994, bought Ungar’s Gefilte Fish and moved into the food manufacturing trade.
According to Larry Praeger: “The rabbi said, the man who saved your life is going to save your brother in law's company. And he did.”
We’ve been averaging 12-16% growth each year in the past few years
While Dr Praeger’s still sells Gefilte Fish - and retained the Ungar’s brand, its fortunes turned around after it moved into the veggie burgers market and developed new products under the Dr Praeger’s Sensible Foods brand.
Back then, says Praeger - who became CEO after his father passed away, while Dr Somberg’s son Adam became president - veggie burgers were typically “just soy and salt”.
His father - who wanted to create something a bit more appealing - added vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, peas, carrots and onions, and the California veggie burger - still one of the Dr Praeger's most popular product lines - was born.
We’ve revamped our packaging, brought in key personnel
Today, the Dr Praeger’s brand has expanded into several other product areas including veggie pockets, broccoli pancakes, breaded fish sticks and sweet potato ‘littles’, and has national listings at retailers from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to Publix, Kroger and Safeway.
“We’ve been averaging 12-16% growth each year in the past few years and I think over the next five years it’s going to be closer to 20%,” says Praeger.
“We’ve revamped our packaging, brought in key personnel including a new senior VP of sales who has worked at SILK/WhiteWave Foods and Sara Lee, and a director of marketing with experience at Pinnacle Foods and Applegate Farms.
“We’ve also picked up new accounts and increased our distribution with existing ones, so where, say, we were in 100 stores Publix stores with one sku, we’re now in 700 stores with four skus. We’ve also just got authorization from Ahold to go into Stop & Shop.”
Kale burgers: A success right out of the gate
He adds: “We’ve also developed new products such as gluten-free kale burgers with quinoa, brown rice, and millet, which have brought a breath of fresh air to the veggie burgers category.
“It’s probably the first product we’ve launched in a while that has had this much success right out of the gate.”