Having grown from a Connecticut kitchen into a national food-producing powerhouse, Pepperidge Farm is turning increased attention to its local roots.
The Norwalk-based company will be marking several anniversaries in 2017, including 80 years since its creation in the Fairfield home of Margaret Fogarty Rudkin, 70 years since the start of its original mass-production bakery, and 50 years since the death of its founder in New Haven. Pepperidge Farm will honor those milestones by increasing education efforts and business connections locally, its executives and local officials say.
Pepperidge Farm’s corporate headquarters is on Westport Avenue in Norwalk, not far from the site of its first mass-production bakery. That bakery, which opened on July 4, 1947, is no more but the corporate headquarters contains a kitchen that will be hosting an increasing number of events involving Norwalk-area schools, Pepperidge Farm spokeswoman Bethridge Toovell said.
The company is determined to pass along to younger generations the culinary innovation and quality that started in Rudkin’s kitchen.
“We are committed to how we can educate, inspire and expand upon our contributions through our skills and company values,” Pepperidge Farm President Carlos Abrams-Rivera said in a prepared statement. “This is the community that welcomed us and supported our products. It’s where the first employees came from that helped us build Pepperidge Farm to be the company that it is today.”
Abrams-Rivera participated in a baking class on Oct. 13 at the corporate headquarters that involved Nathan Hale Middle School eighth-grade students. The event was part of the company’s annual Founder’s Day, which is usually held a month earlier.
Gov. Dannel Malloy declared Sept. 14 Margaret Rudkin Day in Connecticut in honor of the Pepperidge Farm founder’s birthday, calling her legacy “one of America’s most loved brands.” Because of scheduling issues, Pepperidge Farm only marked Sept. 14 this year with an internal celebration.
“We’re emulating our founder,” Toovell said. “We want to inspire our employees, especially women, and we want to touch as many students as possible.”
Among the Founder’s Day guests were state Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling.
“Pepperidge Farm has a long and wonderful history in Norwalk,” Duff said in an interview with Crain’s Connecticut. “They continue to bring us pride, both for Norwalk and for the entire state of Connecticut.”
Pepperidge Farm also hosted students from Norwalk’s Brien McMahon High School for a day of science and baking. That October event was part of the science, technology, engineering and math program run by New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Co., which became Pepperidge Farm’s parent company in 1961.
Pepperidge Farm also has a pilot production plant on its Norwalk campus, part of a 34,000-square-foot innovation center that opened in 2012. The original bakery was phased out in 2003 and replaced by a $72 million facility on Blue Hills Avenue in Bloomfield that opened the same year. The Bloomfield bakery is now one of several Pepperidge Farm facilities, including two in Pennsylvania and one each in Illinois, Florida, Ohio and Utah. Thanksgiving turkey stuffing is among the products made at Bloomfield, Toovell said.
Continuing to enjoy products like 50 varieties of bread, Connecticut residents and their institutions are showing love in return.
Rudkin was among the initial class inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. The Pepperidge Farm founder was honored during the same event as Ella Grasso, Connecticut’s first female governor, who was inducted posthumously.
The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford began an exhibit last month called Connecticut Innovates!, featuring Pepperidge Farm along with Bristol-based Barnes Group Inc., Groton-based Electric Boat Corp., Shelton-based Hubble Inc., Stratford-based Sikorsky Aircraft Co., and Thomaston-based Stevens Co.
Pepperidge Farm has been a member of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce since 1943. The company co-founded and co-chaired the chamber’s Norwalk Corporate Citizenship Alliance several years ago. It has been sponsoring the chamber’s Norwalk Leadership Institute breakfast events in recent years, including one last month.
“That committee fosters good citizenship practices by sharing information on best practices as well as coordinating philanthropic activities amongst the member companies,” said Edward J. Musante Jr., chamber president and CEO, in discussing the citizenship alliance. “It would be difficult to find another partner that has been a better corporate citizen in our region than Pepperidge Farm.”
Pepperidge Farm’s products continue to be popular in Connecticut and beyond. Its sales gains helped Campbell Soup’s Global Biscuits and Snacks division post higher fiscal first-quarter sales, according to the parent company’s Nov. 22 earnings release. The division’s sales rose 3 percent to $671 million, the release said, although profit fell 2 percent to $112 million for the three months that ended Oct. 30. Pepperidge Farm’s exact sales and profits weren’t disclosed in the release or by Toovell.
The company’s Milano brand is the No. 1 cookie bought on Amazon.com while Goldfish Crackers are in the top 3 of snack foods purchased through the online giant’s Amazon Dash service this year, Toovell said.
Toovell declined to say how many people Pepperidge Farm employs in Connecticut and nationally. It uses a system of independent distributorships that Rudkin formed to get products to market. There are 12 distributorships currently available in Connecticut, according to the Pepperidge Farm website, including ones in Clinton, Darien, Greenwich, Hartford, Litchfield, Milford, New Haven, New London, Putnam, Waterbury and West Hartford.
Rudkin’s story continues to inspire women, especially female entrepreneurs, said Kim Wilson, senior manager of administration at the New Haven-based Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, which is an online museum.
Born in 1897 in New York City, Rudkin started baking bread in 1937, attempting to relieve her son’s severe allergy that induced asthma, according to the hall of fame’s website. The whole-wheat bread, based upon the recipe of Rudkin’s Irish grandmother, lead to an improvement in the child’s health and his doctor asking Rudkin for additional loaves to help other patients.
The Fairfield home that she and husband Henry Rudkin built six years into their marriage was named Pepperidge Farm thanks to a pepperidge tree that adorned the property.
Eventually, consumer demand pushed Margaret Rudkin to expand her baking operation, which included the move to Norwalk. By 1953, in the Norwalk mass-production facility, 77,000 loaves of bread were being produced each week, according to the museum’s website.
Rudkin, who appeared in Pepperidge Farm television commercials, lectured at Harvard Business School in retirement, a year after her company was sold to Campbell Soup. She also wrote the “The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook,” which was the first cookbook to make the New York Times best-seller list.