Pepperidge Farm’s cutting-edge founding, 75 years ago
Margaret Rudkin was a second-generation Irishwoman with bright red hair and green eyes. She had grown up in New York City and was educated in the public school system before going to work on Wall Street. In 1937, she was a 40-year-old wife and mother of three sons living in Fairfield on Pepperidge Farm, a large estate named for the Pepperidge trees on the property. Her youngest child, Mark, was struggling with asthma and severe allergies that made him unable to eat most commercial foods.
Despite never having baked a loaf of bread in her life, Rudkin decided to give it a try, using whole wheat and other natural ingredients in the hopes that her son would be able to eat. “Margaret said that her first loaf of bread should have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution as a sample of Stone Age bread, for it was hard as a rock and about one inch high,” Pepperidge Farm president Pat Callaghan told Fairfield Magazine. “After a few more efforts she achieved, as she said, ‘what seemed like good bread.’’’
Fortunately, Rudkin kept at it until she had perfected the bread. She went to her son’s doctor, who was so impressed with the results that he began prescribing it to his other patients. Rudkin then took her bread to Mercurio’s market on the Post Road in Fairfield. She told the owner she wanted to sell it for 25 cents a loaf, when most bread cost 10 cents. He said no, so Rudkin sliced a piece, put some butter on it, handed it to him. He took all the loaves. By the time Rudkin got home, she had a message from the owner asking for more, and Pepperidge Farm launched from there.
Rudkin started in her kitchen, but soon moved the operation to her garage, baking hundreds of thousands of loaves before moving the business to its first commercial factory, a converted hospital in Norwalk, in 1940. Seven years later, Pepperidge Farm moved into a state-of-the-art facility, which is still its headquarters today. “What began as a mother’s love for her allergic son, blossomed into a visionary business leadership by a woman ahead of her time,” says Callaghan.
Always looking forward, Rudkin continued to grow the business, buying the rights to produce the cookies today sold as Milano, Brussels, and Bordeaux. She also added the frozen Puff Pastry line and later discovered in Switzerland what has become the company’s best seller and number-one cracker in the U.S., Goldfish.
After nearly 25 years of running the business she liked to call “The Fairy Tale,” Rudkin decided to sell to Campbell Soup in 1961, becoming the first woman to sit on the company’s board. Rudkin passed away six years later, but Callaghan says her mission still lives on at Pepperidge Farm.
“She would always say, ‘you know, this is great, love it, what’s next?’”