Let’s Make a Dill

Bob Vlasic used cheesy humor to help transform his family’s local company, Vlasic Foods Inc., into a premium national brand.
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When Bob Vlasic took over Vlasic Foods in Detroit in 1963, he brought more levity to the operation. Eleven years later, a stork was introduced as the company’s mascot, playing off the notion that pregnant women crave pickles. An ensuing ad campaign saw Vlasic debut the tagline “the pickle pregnant women crave . . . after all, who’s a better pickle expert?” // Photo courtesy of Vlasic Foods Inc.

Through the mists of time, pickles have been a tangy condiment served with meals as well as a bracing snack between them.

During 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites survived on manna and wistfully recalled their more varied diet during captivity in Egypt, when they ate fish, melons, and cucumbers. Some of the cucumbers were pickled, and Cleopatra revealed their value as a beauty secret.

Centuries later, pickles sustained Detroiters, too. Fermented in oak barrels, pickles were plucked from their briny baths for market-goers. Then, during World War II, Vlasic Foods Inc. began to pack pickles in glass jars.

Beyond the convenient packaging, a key differentiator came from marketing. Making a play on the notion that pregnant women craved pickles, Vlasic’s ad agency, W.B. Doner & Co. (today Doner Co. in Southfield), created a campaign featuring an animated stork named Jovny. He wore a postal clerk’s garb and waved a pickle like a cigar.

In one commercial, the off-screen crunching of a pickle startles a cat. In another, a woman spills her beverage when a neighbor’s “c-r-u-n-c-h!” rudely commands the moment.

Voiced by actor Doug Preis — who also did Lucky the Leprechaun in cereal commercials — the stork happens to sound like Groucho Marx: “Vlasic — that’s the tastiest crunch I’ve ever ‘hoid.’ ”

“We decided that pickles are a fun food,” Bob Vlasic told The New York Times in 1974. “We decided that we didn’t want to take ourselves or our business too seriously.”

The family enterprise started after Franjo “Frank” Vlasic, an immigrant from Croatia, saved money from his foundry job and distributed dairy products, ice, ham, and pickles to Poles around Detroit.

The Vlasic mascot is a stork named Jovny. // Art courtesy of Vlasic Foods Inc.

Son Joe helped build the business before World War II. Grandson Bob, an engineering graduate from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, joined the company after the war and became general manager. From there, the company built an Imlay City plant with 28 sauerkraut vats and contracted for 500 acres of cucumbers for pickles.

Establishing regional success is one thing; upscaling is another matter. As it turned out, Americans were hungrier for pickles than anyone realized. Bob Vlasic took over the company in 1963 and “out-dilled” H.J. Heinz Co. and Del Monte Foods Inc. Per-capita pickle consumption floated from two pounds to eight pounds yearly by the 1970s. At the time, Vlasic Foods had a 14.5 percent slice of the market and then further expanded its domination over Heinz (11.1 percent) and Del Monte (5.2 percent).

Like other business leaders, Vlasic influenced popular culture, as well. However, unlike Henry Ford’s “My Life and Work” or Warren Avis’s “Take a Chance to Be First,” Vlasic compiled “101 Pickle Jokes.”

For example: “What’s green and pecks on trees? Woody Woodpickle” or “Who’s the greatest player in pickle baseball? Dilly Mays.”

Indeed, the Vlasics delivered plenty of cheese in the early days, and grandson Bob kept laying it on. With annual sales hitting $102 million in 1978, he accepted $33 million in Campbell Soup Co. stock for Vlasic Foods. The deal included a seat on Campbell’s board, so he commuted to New Jersey for meetings, even serving as chairman from 1988 to 1993.

“He loved Campbell as much as anything,” says Bill Vlasic, one of Bob’s five sons with wife Nancy. Campbell spun off Vlasic Foods International in 1998; three years later, that entity changed its name to Pinnacle Foods. Conagra Brands acquired Pinnacle for $10.9 billion in 2018.

Jovny the stork, meanwhile, had a 2010 makeover that made him slimmer and more contemporary, but it flopped and the original made a comeback. “It’s the kind of thing my dad probably would have vetoed,” Bill says. “He was very proud of that legacy.”