Begin With A Broom

German immigrant Henry Thumann built the deli company his heirs have tended.

Founder Henry Thumann, center, his son, Henry Gordon, second from left, and two company executives, circa 1959.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Like every kid, Bob Burke Jr. used to dream about what he wanted to do when he grew up. “First I wanted to be a fireman,” he recalls. “Then a race car driver. Then an astronaut. Then a dentist. Then one day my father said to me, ‘Okay, let’s go to work.’” With that, the daydreaming ended. It was the summer of 1984, when Bob Jr. was 15, and his hands-on learning began in the shipping department of Thumann’s, his grandfather Henry Thumann’s deli provisions company. During college summers, Bob Jr. began doing things like boning hams, roasting beef, and making bologna.

Bob Jr.’s father, Bob Burke Sr., at that point general manager of the company, had started even more humbly. A native of Orchard Park, New York, outside Buffalo, he had met Henry Thumann’s daughter, Linda, at the University of Buffalo and married her in 1965 after earning a business degree and beginning a career in banking. Given her father’s business, the couple might have settled in New Jersey anyway, but it helped that her husband’s best buddies in the Army Reserves all happened to be from the Garden State. They told him there was plenty of opportunity there.

Indeed, there was, especially in his father-in-law’s company. At first, Bob Sr. resisted what he thought of as “the meat game.” But canny Henry Thumann, knowing that his son-in-law was especially fond of cold cuts, used to give him samples to taste and ask his opinion. “He liked my organoleptic abilities,” Bob Sr. says, a chuckle wrinkling his sandy mustache. “So in 1968 I felt maybe I could help Thumann out with his business. Strategy and direction, business modeling, that kind of thing. But he gave me a broom.” Another chuckle.

“I said, ‘What do I do with this?’ He said, ‘What do you think you do with it? You know how to use that, right?’ So I swept up the parking lot, I swept up the foyer, and I wound up in shipping, and then in all the other departments. He wanted me to be the best guy in each department. I said, ‘That’s impossible.’ He said, ‘No, it isn’t. You’ve just got to keep trying. You’ve got to try.’”

Thumann spoke with authority, because his start had been the humblest of all. Born in Wingst in rural northern Germany in 1910, the youngest of nine children, Heinrich Thumann came to America in 1928 at age 17 and went to work for an uncle who was a butcher in Queens, New York. Before long he took on a dairy delivery route for Borden’s and Kraft. That led to him getting involved for a time in a dairy farm in New Paltz, New York. Quick to learn English and ever enterprising, he mastered the butcher trade and set himself up in business distributing Boar’s Head meat products. On Oct. 27 1940, he married Frieda Tietjen, who had emigrated from Heudorf in southern Germany.

Boar’s Head, at that time, was strong in New York but had little or no presence in New Jersey. Thumann, by now called Henry, smelled opportunity. “He liked Boar’s Head,” says Bob Sr. “He admired their quality and the way they did business, and he patterned Thumann’s after them.” In 1949, Thumann hung up his shingle in a former dry cleaning establishment in Wallington, in southern Bergen County. His first products were hams, bologna, and liverwurst.

Eight years later, Thumann’s Inc. moved to St. Paul’s Avenue in Jersey City, where it remained until moving in 1977 to its current 165,000-square-foot facility on Dell Road in Carlstadt. Sales of its more than 200 products now exceed $100 million a year, and the company is still family-owned.

Though the business moved, Henry and Frieda Thumann stayed put in one house on Wilson Avenue in Rutherford, from the mid-1950s until the end of their lives. It was quite a house. Designed by an inventor who worked for the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche, it was huge, clad in limestone, had an elevator, a flat roof intended as a helipad (though it never functioned as such), and built-ins such as a dining room table that descended from the ceiling. (Mrs. Thumann had the table ripped out soon after moving in.) “It was like a castle,” Bob Sr. recalls.

The Thumanns bought a summer house in the Shore town of Bay Head—Frieda’s pride and joy. Henry’s not so much. He preferred Greenwood Lake, where he wanted to build a house that never got built for lack of family interest. Bob Sr., also not a Shore person, remembers dutifully trudging down to Bay Head, fighting Shore traffic, when his son was young. “Sand gets in your car,” he says. “I can’t stand it.” The Bay Head house is still in the family and is prized, especially by Bob Jr.’s wife, Jackie, and their four children.
Bob Sr. raised his family in Verona. But in 1972, a year after they moved to the town from Belleville, Linda Thumann Burke died at 28. Bob Jr. was 3 years old. Bob Sr. eventually remarried and had a daughter, Sonia, who works at the company, as does his sister Susan. Divorced, he lives in Boonton, which he calls “God’s country. Up in the hills.”

There was more tragedy ahead. In 1985, Linda’s younger brother, Henry Gordon Thumann, an executive at the company, died at 44. “As much as my grandfather had things good,” says Bob Jr., “he had things just as bad.”

Frieda died in 2002 at age 88. The founder died last May at 98. “He was good for 96 of those years,” says Bob Jr., “driving his car, playing golf and cards with his friends at Forest Hill Field Club [in Belleville], coming into the office once a week unless he was in Florida in the winter.” These days Bob Sr., 66, is chief operating officer of Thumann’s, and Bob Jr., 40, is president.

Like his grandfather, Bob Jr. is an avid golfer (with a 9 handicap). He is also a self-described “carhead” and a Porsche owner. He and Jackie (who is from Kenilworth) and their children live in Essex Fells. When Bob Jr. was a boy, he got so tired of eating deli sandwiches for lunch he would trade them at school for other kids’ peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. So far, the fourth generation of the Thumann family is far from cold-cut fatigue. Robert Burke III, 9, never tires of all-beef hot dogs; Lauren, 8, loves turkey sandwiches; and Caroline, 5, and Katherine, 4, clamor for bologna slices wrapped around string cheese or rolled plain.

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