The history of the food industry offers many great examples of notable pioneers who innovated in the face of adversity. One such individual is Robert E. Rich, Sr., the founder of Rich Products Corp., based in Buffalo, NY. He was born into a dairy family. His father had stints as a dairyman selling milk, and then running an ice cream plant where young Bob worked during his summers. After graduating from the University at Buffalo in 1935, his father helped him get started in the dairy business. Bob had a strong reputation as an achiever, and he quickly built his milk business into a wholesale leader in the region.
When World War II began, Washington called on Bob to help with the war effort at home, overseeing milk rationing in Michigan. It was then that he learned about the use of soybeans as a dairy analogue. That set him on a path that led to his development of the world’s first commercial nondairy frozen whipped topping, and Rich Products was born.
The nondairy soy “whip topping” wasn’t subject to rationing, was cheaper than dairy-based cream, exhibited better stability, and was kosher pareve. Importantly, he could freeze the “miracle cream from the soybean” for better transport and extended shelf life, opening up nationwide distribution. This established the launching point for one of the most-successful privately held family-run American companies in the food industry. Today, Bob Rich, Jr. serves as chairman of the board and continues his father’s legacy. Rich Products is a global industry giant, with over $4 billion in annual revenue. And it all started with a soybean and a dream.
Such high-level innovation is the lifeblood of our industry. As we continue to face down the many challenges posed by our current COVID-19 pandemic, we need innovators like Robert E. Rich, Sr. to step up and develop original, workable solutions to catalyze growth for the future of food retailing and foodservice. Our industry landscape is changing, and the time is ripe for a fresh wave of innovation to bring the future into focus.