May 19, 2015
By Michelle Daino, Courier News
Rita Tabatchnick was faced with a challenging decision in November 2014, when her husband, Ben, the CEO of Tabatchnick Fine Foods, died of cancer. Could she and her children carry on the rich legacy established by Ben’s family over a century ago?
The family chose, as generations before them, to value tradition and keep Ben’s vision and mission thriving. They have never looked back.
When she does look back on the company’s history of providing high-quality, handcrafted soups and broths from the most natural and fresh ingredients, Tabatchnick reflects on her husband’s great-grandparents, Sarah and Louis, who started a delicatessen where the business was born.
Louis joined Ben’s grandfather, Joe, and father, Seymour, in the deli business, where batches of delectable soups were carefully created and savored by customers time and again.
“They always made soups for the deli, and it was so popular that they couldn’t make enough to satisfy the demand, so they froze it,” recalled Tabatchnick, who met her husband in 1978 and married him in 1980.
The freezing technique, which blocked out a need for preservatives and is maintained today in its packaging, was also ahead of its time, she said.
“My husband worked summers and weekends at the deli, and when he graduated from college, he stepped in to run the soup business,” she said.
Rita began handling the marketing and sales responsibilities, while Ben managed and set up the manufacturing plants.
“I was able to do the outside work, while he did the work inside,” she said. “In the 1990s, his brother, Justin, decided to move to California and Ben’s father was interested in moving on to other projects. So, Ben took over the family business.
“The norm was to make all of these different soups, but Ben also saw other opportunities. Now, he could bring his own dreams to fruition.”
Ben realized his dream of bringing healthier school lunch options to cafeteria tables, including the creation of fresh berries and a small bit of apple juice to make a frozen sorbetlike treat. Mac and cheese with low-fat milk and no butter became even more desirable than the goopy, powdered original that kids often craved.
“He was interested in nutrition and how to improve things,” she said, adding that the goal of bringing soups low in sodium and without preservatives, additives or monosodium glutamate (MSG) became paramount.
“In 1983, we came out with fresh soups, but we were about 20 years ahead of time so we were not able to successfully market them at the time because American consumers were used to canned soups.”
Eager to establish outreach as one of the company’s key ingredients, Ben and Tabatchnick Fine Foods established an ongoing relationship with Holy Apostles Church’s soup kitchen in New York City around 2011 after learning about the organization about 30 years ago.
“We donate our soup to the kitchen on Fridays,” she said, noting that the facility serves close to 1,500 people per day, as well as counseling, moral support, employment search assistance and a sense of purpose.
Another crowning accomplishment for the company came when Ben discovered a peanut butter blend with vitamins that he wanted to improve on. He went to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and helped create Nutty Butta, a high-protein nutritional paste that has saved malnourished children all over Africa. The product is dispensed by UNICEF and USAID.
Tabatchnick said that the company’s commitment to improve the lives of others draws from a Jewish tradition called “Tikkun olam,” that translates as a mission of repairing the world.
She said that the company also maintains a program at the factory in which applicants who encountered problems in their early youth, such as incarceration, would be considered for employment and given a second chance.
“If you give them a chance, they prove to be hard workers because they want to do something worthwhile with their future,” Tabatchnick said.
When Ben was a patient at Morristown Medical Center, the company’s soups were donated and enjoyed by many of the cancer patients.
While many of the soups are vegetarian, and a line of organic and gluten-free soups is always served up, Ben was working up until his death on other products that might nourish patients.
“We are family owned,” said Tabatchnick, “with three of my children (Jason, Alex and Anna) in the business.”
Anna has a twin sister, Ruthie.
“They each have their own area. We have a great staff that works hard together. We are very inclusive and we truly are a melting pot. There is no office politics and several of our employees have been here for many years,” Tabatchnick said.
“Quality is what our customers appreciate, from the vegetables to the flavor and taste. They can get healthy, organic, low-sodium, gluten-free, ease of use, BPA-free. It really has all of the bells and whistles.”
The company’s broths are not only praised for their remarkable depth of flavor, but also for nearly miniscule calorie count.
A 32-ounce container of the chicken broth at two-thirds of a cup per serving amounts to only five calories. The same measure of Tabatchnick’s vegetable broth tallies only 10 calories.
“Our split pea soup is our most popular,” she said, followed by vegetable, chicken, minestrone and mushroom barley.
When she reflects on how the company has changed with the times given its long history, Tabatchnick said, “Our consumers are more savvy. They have actually realized that there is frozen soup and that it should be a destination for them in the frozen aisle. The shelf-life of our soups is about two years and it is easy to serve, portion-controlled and all of the calories are stated on it. In many ways, we are a niche business because you think of soup as only being in the canned aisle.
“We’ve had people write in to say they are using their soups for dieting,” she added, when pointing to the soups’ low calorie count. “They will have a normal breakfast, one of our soups and a moderate dinner to keep their calorie count down.”
She also noted that the soups make a good snack and are a healthy alternative to larger meals such as a cheeseburger and fries. Working women are pleased to forgo their normal lunchtime fare of yogurt cups and cottage cheese because the soups offer more substance and are more satisfying.
Tabatchnick hinted that the company would be coming out with a new line named for her husband that would combine and reformulate some of the soups to serve all needs and palates.
Taking the reins and many new responsibilities at Tabatchnick has been a blessing and transition for Rita.
“It’s been really wonderful. My husband was the love of my life. Cancer is a terrible disease and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said. “But working has been wonderful. Instead of staying at home and dwelling on memories of what was, that wouldn’t have made me as functionable.”
Tabatchnick used to perform her sales and marketing duties from home before her husband’s death.
“Ben died on a Sunday and we buried him on Tuesday and I went back to work on that Friday,” she recalled.
When she asked her children how they wanted to proceed with the family business (keeping or selling it), they said, “Dad left us this great legacy. We want to build on Dad’s legacy.”
She remembered how many of the Tabatchnick products were “tested” by the children first, so their heart, soul and taste buds were already a part of it.
“They said, ‘We really want to run it, we’re all in, whatever hours we have to work, whatever we have to do,’ ” she recalled.
The employees were equally thrilled that the company would not be sold. They were eager to pitch in and make the transition as smooth as possible.
Aside from working out of the company’s headquarters every day instead of her home, Rita had to fill in a lot of the gaps of what her husband used to manage. Consultants helped her fill in those gaps.
“He left us such a strong, wonderful, forward-thinking business,” Tabatchnick said of her husband, who had quite a penchant for cooking outside of the business.
Working up until the day he died, Ben left his wife with formulas of some products that could be worked on. He also consulted with doctors about products that might help nourish patients.
“I told his doctor, ‘If you could save my husband, you could save millions of people,’ ” said Tabatchnick, pointing to his humanitarian work on a global scale.
When she looks toward the future of the business, she hopes the company will continue to make a dramatic improvement in the lives of those struggling in Third World countries, helping severely malnourished children to become productive adults so they can make strides where they live.
“If you have healthy children, you have everything,” she said.
Making an impact on the childhood obesity issue in the United States is also vital to Tabatchnick.
“If our children can eat something as healthy as our soups, parents can help to prevent their children from becoming overweight,” she said.
Part of the Somerset community since the 1990s, Tabatchnick is proud to be part of such an interactive, embracing neighborhood that reveres and admires the legacy and tradition put forth by her husband’s company.
“It is wonderful to see how this community has grown, developed and prospered,” she added.
Tabatchnick Fine Foods, which is only about 10 minutes from Rutgers University, offers internships to some of the graduate students interested in food science. The company also sponsored a young woman from Pakistan who worked with them for several years.
“Sometimes, you are dealt a bad hand in life,” Tabatchnick reflected, adding that despite her husband’s death, watching her children and employees step up to continue the family legacy has inspired her.
“When one door shuts, a window opens. I miss Ben, but on the other side, there has been a whole growth experience. I couldn’t run this business without the support of my children, staff and the community.”