Entrepreneur of quality bakery products, Margaret Fogarty Rudkin (1897-1976) was founder and president of Pepperidge Farm Inc., the largest U.S. independent baking company.
The oldest of five children of Joseph and Margaret (Healey) Fogarty, Margaret Fogarty was born in New York City on September 14, 1897, during the time of cobblestone streets and gas lampposts. The family lived in a four-story brownstone with an Irish grandmother who taught ten-year-old Margaret about cooking, starting with biscuits, cream sauce, and chocolate cake. When she was 12 the family moved to Flushing, Long Island, where she attended public schools and graduated as valedictorian of her high school class.
Interested in a career in business, she went to work as a bookkeeper for a local bank and eventually was promoted to teller. Four years later, in 1919, she took a position with McClure, Jones & Co., a member of the New York Stock Exchange, where she met Henry Albert Rudkin, a partner in the firm. They were married on April 8, 1923, and had three sons—Henry Jr. (1924), William (1926), and Mark (1929), all of whom attended Yale University.
In 1926 the prosperous family purchased 125 acres of property near Fairfield, Connecticut, built a Tudor mansion, a garage for five automobiles, and stables for 12 horses. They named the estate Pepperidge Farm after pepperidge trees on the property. Her husband enjoyed golf and shooting and served for years as president of the Fairfield Hunt Club, whose polo grounds were called Rudkin Field. Margaret Rudkin lived the life of a woman of leisure, exhibiting at horse shows and winning many ribbons. Their life of ease and social grace was curtailed by the Depression and by a serious polo accident in 1932 which forced Henry Rudkin to remain at home for six months. Margaret Rudkin dismissed most of the servants, sold the horses and all but one automobile, and raised money for the farm by selling apples from their orchard of 500 trees and turkeys which they raised.
When her youngest son became ill with asthma at the age of nine, Margaret Rudkin developed an interest in proper food. She got out her Irish grandmother's recipe for whole wheat bread with its old-fashioned ingredients— stone-milled flour, honey, molasses, sugar syrup, milk, cream, and butter—and baked her first loaf of bread at the age of 40. The first loaf was "hard as a rock" but further experimentation produced a quality loaf. The bread seemed to improve Mark's health, and his allergist asked her to make bread for him and for his other patients. In 1937 Margaret Rudkin began making small batches with the help of a servant, later setting up a small bakery in an abandoned farm building and selling extra loaves to her own grocer. Expanding to an old-fashioned white bread made with unbleached flour, she tested it on the manager of Charles & Co., a specialty food store in New York City, who ordered 24 loaves daily, delivered at first by her husband on his way to Wall Street. Soon the order was 1,200 loaves a week, necessitating trucking. In a year the bakery was producing 4,000 loaves weekly.
Demand grew rapidly although the bread sold for twice the price of mass-produced bread. Enthusiastic articles in the New York Journal and American, Herald Tribune, and World Telegram promoted the products, and an article in the December 1939 Reader's Digest brought orders from all over the United States, Canada, and several foreign countries. To meet the demand, Rudkin had to borrow $15,000 in 1940 to move the bakery to Norwalk, Connecticut, where weekly volume exceeded 50,000 loaves of bread the first year. She refused to compromise on quality as business expanded.
In the years that followed, Pepperidge Farm grew into a major national firm. Margaret Rudkin served as president and looked after the daily production. Her husband gradually gave up his Wall Street position to handle finances, marketing, and sales as chairman. Two sons, Henry and William, were vice presidents of the firm. They moved to a bigger plant in Norwalk and later opened plants in Pennsylvania in 1947 and Illinois in 1953. Several restored grist mills stone-ground the flour, and Rudkin supplied her own top grade wheat bought in Minneapolis.
Initially, the firm had done little advertising, letting the products stand on their own merits and word-of-mouth reputation. In 1950 that policy changed with the appearance of Margaret Rudkin in television commercials. During this decade the list of products expanded as she purchased a frozen pastry line from a New Hampshire company and fancy cookie recipes from a firm in Belgium. Expansion eventually included 58 products including rolls, coffee cake, pound cake, Melba toast, herb-seasoned stuffing made from stale loaves returned by grocers, and fancy cocktail snacks called Goldfish.
The Rudkins sold the business to the Campbell Soup Company in 1960, exchanging the Pepperidge Farm assets for Campbell stock worth about $28 million. Even so, Margaret Rudkin continued to operate Pepperidge Farm as a separate company and, in addition, became a director of Campbell Soup. In 1962 she yielded the presidency to her son William and replaced her husband as chairman. Five months after her husband's death she retired in September 1966 and died on June 1, 1967 at the age of 69 of cancer. At that time the annual sales were 70 million loaves of bread.
Her interest in food led Margaret Rudkin to collect ancient cookbooks. She drew on her knowledge of food in writing The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook (1963), which became a best seller. Her business acumen was recognized by invitations to lecture at the Harvard School of Business Administration. In later years the Rudkins maintained a home at Hobe Sound, Florida, and an ancestral manor house and 150 acres, purchased in 1953, at County Carlow, Ireland, where they spent summers.
Biographical information appears in Sicherman and Green's Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980). In The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook Rudkin tells about her childhood, early married life, bread making, and her family's trips to Ireland. Articles appear in Reader's Digest 35 (December 1939); Time 50 (July 14, 1947) and 75 (March 21, 1960); Newsweek 20 (September 21, 1942); The New Yorker (November 16, 1963); and New York Times (December 4, 1949); and her obituary appeared in the New York Times on June 2, 1967. □