When Vernon Stouffer, the originator of premium-priced home-style frozen foods, was 15, his parents opened a stand in downtown Cleveland, selling buttermilk and Mrs. Stouffer’s special hot Dutch apple pie.
With “just like Mom used to make” as the business standard, Vern Stouffer opened a lunch counter back home in Ohio a year after graduating from the Wharton School, but that was just the beginning. His restaurant, hotel, and frozen-food company was valued at $120 million when it merged with microwave maker Litton Industries in 1967, and went on to became part of world food conglomerate Nestlé.
He told Time magazine in late 1962, “You can’t delegate quality control.” Stouffer’s was one of the first restaurant chains to use a test kitchen, where the boss tasted all the recipes before they went on the menu. Stouffer would also slip anonymously into one of his restaurants and test the food, then coach the cook if necessary.
Stouffer kept his ears and eyes open for new trends and took risks. During the Great Depression, he expanded his restaurant business while other business owners circled the wagons. Later, when customers told him they were taking meals home and freezing them for future enjoyment, he wasted no time expanding this novel idea into a huge venture that outlived the original restaurant chain. To help expand the frozen-foods business, he ensured Stouffer’s products would get prime placement by guaranteeing to increase grocers’ profits in one month. After World War II, Stouffer saw the suburbs booming and put his new restaurants there. As skyscrapers became more prevalent at mid-century, he opened numerous top floor restaurants in them.
In 1967, Litton acquired Stouffer Foods Corp., creating a corporate synergy that further changed the way families ate. The frozen food company became the first to develop products specifically for Litton’s new highspeed microwave ovens, greatly expanding the market for both products. Stouffer, whose family owned the Cleveland Indians baseball team from 1966 to 1972, stayed on as chairman of the company until it was acquired by Nestlé in 1973. He died a year later.