2012-03-11 / Marketplace

Michigan-born Vlasic Pickle has long history in Imlay City

BY PHIL FOLEY 810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

Employees leave the Vlasic plant in Imlay City last week. Employees leave the Vlasic plant in Imlay City last week. IMLAY CITY — Open a refrigerator or kitchen cabinet anywhere in the U.S. and you’re likely to see a bespeckled white stork smiling and holding a pickle in a Groucho-like pose.

Over the past 70 years the Vlasic name has become synonymous with Polish-style dill pickles. However, the company was founded by a Croatian immigrant in Detroit in the 1920s.

Franjo Vlasic began with a creamery in Detroit that eventually grew to be the state’s largest wholesale milk distributorship. As the company grew, it added hams and pickles for the city’s polish community.

Initially the Vlasics produced pickles in barrels as they had been for centuries, but in 1942 Franjo’s son, Joe, and grandson, Bob, began packing pickles in glass jars and the Vlasic Pickle brand was born.

Sometime in the 1950s the Vlasics bought an existing pickle plant on Blacks Corners Road in Imlay City and it has been part of the fabric of the community ever since. Imlay City Historical Society board member Carla Japsen said Patzer Foods began making pickles in Imlay City sometime in the 1940s.

With Vlasic headquartered in West Bloomfield, the third generation of the Vlasic family, Bob, took the reins of the company in 1963 and by 1970, Vlasic was tied with H.J. Hienz Company, with each holding 10 percent of the national pickle market. Seven years later, Hienz still held 10 percent of the market while one in four pickles sold in the U.S. carried the Vlasic label.

While Heinz, which was founded in Pennsylvania in 1869, had boasted of 57 varieties on its labels for generations, Vlasic carried 138 items and in the company was spending more on television advertising than all its competitors combined.

The venerable Campbell Soup company bought Vlasic, which then had annual sales of $102 million, in 1978. In the early ‘90s Vlasic’s marketing and administrative divisions moved out of state to Campbell’s New Jersey headquarters.

Vlasic became an independent company again in 1998 as Vlasic Foods International and moved its headquarters to Cherry Hill, NJ. In 2001 the company changed its name to Pinnacle Foods.

Pinnacle was acquired in 2007 by The Blackstone Group, a New York City-based private equity firm for a reported $2.2 billion.

Last month, Bloomberg Business week reported that The Blackstone Group was interviewing banks to take Pinnacle public sometime in the next six months. Bloomberg predicted the initial public offering for Pinnacle, which now includes Birds Eye Foods Inc., which was purchased in 2009 for $1.3 billion, could generate between $4 billion and $5 billion.

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