Miracle Worker

For Dr. Peter Praeger, saving lives is routine. Saving a gefilte fish company was another matter.

On Christmas Eve, 1988, Dr. Peter Praeger was called into the hospital to perform emergency heart surgery. The patient, a man who owned an egg company, was making deliveries when a drunk driver slammed into his truck, and the impact ruptured his aorta. Praeger worked through the night and repaired the heart, saving David Braun’s life.During Braun’s recovery, Praeger got to know Braun’s brother-in-law, Rubin Ungar, who visited the hospital every day and chatted with the surgeon when he stopped in to check on Braun. So Praeger recognized the name when Ungar telephoned him nearly two years later. At first, Praeger thought Ungar wanted to thank him. Instead, Ungar invited him to lunch at his kosher gefilte fish factory in Elmwood Park.

“I knew he was a stand-up guy,” Praeger says, so he and his medical partner, Dr. Eric Somberg, drove the ten minutes from Hackensack University Medical Center to dine on gefilte fish and challah. When they got up to leave, Ungar said, “I have a big problem.”

For the next half hour, Praeger listened to Ungar explain that he had borrowed money to expand Ungar’s Gefilte Fish beyond his basement, but he couldn’t make the payments. He was bankrupt. Praeger assumed he needed money, but what Ungar was looking for was business advice. “I’m a heart surgeon,” Praeger said. “You gotta get someone else.”

But there was no one else. So for the next three months Ungar continued to call and show up at the hospital. “He was a very nice man, and very hard to say no to,” Praeger says. Ungar confided to Praeger that his rabbi had made a prediction: Whoever had saved his brother-in-law would also save his business. Praeger politely demurred. Finally, as a guest at Ungar’s son’s wedding, he said, “Okay, I’ll take a look at it.”

Because Ungar’s Yiddish was better than his English, he had trouble negotiating with bankers, so Praeger brokered a deal to reduce the amount Ungar had to repay his lenders. But the problem wasn’t that Ungar had little money—he had none.

Praeger at last agreed to become the business’s silent partner. It soon became clear that Ungar’s devotion to his faith, spending hours a day in prayer at his synagogue, was preventing him from running the business efficiently. There were only eight employees, who worked part-time except for full-time spurts just before Jewish holidays. As a surgeon, Praeger’s mentality is, “When something’s wrong, you fix it.” So in 1994 he took total control.

“It was like The Godfather—they pulled me into it,” he says, dramatically drawing his arms to his chest. But working twenty-hour days at the hospital, he needed a partner. He turned to Somberg. “I begged him to go along with me,” he says. “Two heads are better than one.”

A company making only one product that doesn’t exactly have a wide market wasn’t going to cut it. Praeger’s wife, Nurit, a former medical saleswoman, had been enlisted to help cook and sell the gefilte fish, but after a few months she’d had enough. Not only was she tired of tasting it, but she had trouble communicating with the Yiddish-speaking customers.

Praeger’s daughter, Danielle, a vegetarian, was studying at the University of Colorado. She suggested veggie burgers. They were newly in vogue, and the idea sparked Praeger’s interest. For 25 years he had listened to patients complain that there was no healthy yet tasty food they could eat after surgery. Why not create something sensible that patients could enjoy?

For ingredient advice, Praeger consulted Somberg’s wife, Ellen, an excellent cook. His own skills were limited to occasional grilling, and his nutritional savvy was only what a cardiac surgeon would know.

Praeger ventured into the kitchen—or his lab, as he likes to call it—and started mashing together a colorful array of vegetables and spices. The tight budget and his refusal to use chemical additives made the process more challenging. “How do you bind a vegetable burger? With chemicals it would have been easy,” Praeger says. Research finally led him to arrowroot, a starchy herb strong enough to hold a patty together.

It took months, but with feedback from supermarket demonstrations and tastings for friends, Praeger perfected his California veggie burger. The kosher and vegan-certified product is now a top seller and one of 42 foods in production.

This family-run enterprise with only 50 people in the factory on a given day has to be resourceful. Besides, “regular people give you the best answers,” the man in charge says. At Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, a typical taste test goes like this:

In his blue scrubs, Praeger pops into the office of his vice president of marketing (Danielle) and hands her a sample of his latest batch of kosher, vegan, gluten-free “burrito bites.”

“Too much cumin,” she says. He scribbles a note and moves on, sidling between mixing machines, before finding his partner’s son, Adam Somberg, 27, the production manager.

“Needs more chickpea flour,” Adam says. Praeger continues to collect critiques. Then he returns to the factory’s bare-bones kitchen, where the only appliance is a black KitchenAid mixer, to tweak his creation.

He has even turned his son Tommy, 10, into a guinea pig to test vegetarian chicken nuggets. “If I told him this was a vegetable, he wouldn’t eat it, but when I hear him say, ‘Pass the chicken nuggets,’ I’m satisfied.”

Bits of fresh peas, carrots, and broccoli are easily identifiable in Praeger products, and the fish in the fish sticks is always fresh. “When we say we put garlic in it,” he says, “we actually put pieces of garlic in it.”

“The first three or four years, we were about to give up,” Praeger admits. “I would come in and the bookkeeper would say, ‘Listen, we need $20,000. Payroll is coming up, our electricity is going to be shut off, and we need to pay for 1,000 pounds of onions.’” Praeger and Somberg invested their own money. “Some months we had to put $20,000 in,” Praeger says. When that wasn’t enough, they obtained loans. “We were stuck with it,” he says. “But I knew that once we got busy enough, we would be okay.”

It took almost seven years to climb into the black. Demand for healthful, gluten-free food rose, and the customer base slowly grew. By 2005, they had enough capital to move the guts of the 10,000-square-foot operation to the former Joyce Food warehouse off Market Street in Elmwood Park. The factory, six times bigger than the original, pumps out about 15 million veggie burgers a year to Israel, Canada, and South America, as well as throughout the United States.

Praeger knows the business could be more profitable if he cut corners—a little onion powder here, some freeze-dried peas there—but he’s not about to cross that line. He has turned down offers to buy the company. “This is a home-style, mom-and-pop business,” he says. “If they buy it, they’ll ruin it.” Praeger’s eldest children, Larry and Danielle, spent their college summer vacations packaging fish. After graduating, Larry, now 31, attended medical school for a year, and Danielle, 28, stayed in Boulder to work as a waitress before both joined the business. Now Larry is vice president. Somberg’s wife, Ellen, manages the office. Praeger’s nephew, Jeffrey Cohen, who graduated from the Wharton School and has an MBA from New York University, is COO.

“It’s very tough to reprimand your children or give them orders,” Praeger says. But the atmosphere is comfortable.

“It’s brought us closer,” says Larry. “I’m sure my dad once in a while wishes he had someone else to work for him other than his son, but there’s never a feeling that you can’t say something.” Praeger even employs most of the original workers, including Rubin Ungar, who sells the products out of a freezer truck he himself bought.

Even as sales climb, Praeger, 60, does not intend to quit his day job. Maybe it’s his past talking to him. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Communist government seized his family’s possessions, including his father’s clothing store. Praeger and his family fled to Austria in 1956, then emigrated to America, where his father opened a clothing store in Manhattan. “My father would say that your business and your knowledge should be in your head so they can’t take it away from you,” he says. “It was his paranoia, but it was based on reality.”

Praeger and Somberg perform heart surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, where they are codirectors of cardiothoracic surgery. Around 2 or 3 pm, they scrub out and head to the factory. “I don’t play golf,” he says. “It takes six hours, and I can do two heart operations in that time.”

Praeger doesn’t mix the two businesses, but his heart patients find out about his products anyway. “Ninety percent of my patients tell me, ‘I went into my freezer to get something to eat and saw your face staring back at me,’ ” Praeger says. Finding your surgeon in your freezer is enough to give anyone a heart attack.

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