Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods

Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods is a brand beloved by vegans, vegetarians, kosher food eaters, gluten-free dieters and the average consumer living a sensible lifestyle. The food brand is distributed across the states and internationally in Canada, South America and Israel. It began in 1994 with the goal of serving a then under-served market where bland, soy-based products reigned supreme in health food aisles. But behind this simple concept of healthy food to match healthy lifestyles is an almost unbelievable story of two cardiac surgeons by day and recipe makers by night.

In 1988, while working at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., Dr. Peter Praeger – cardiac surgeon and president, CEO and founder of his namesake company – performed surgery to repair a patient’s ruptured aorta. The patient was struck by a drunk driver, but with the help of Praeger and his colleagues, he was nursed to full recovery.

During the patient’s hospital stay, Praeger developed a friendship with the man’s brother-in-law Rubin Ungar, founder of Ungar’s Gefilte fish, a popular product within the Yiddish and kosher-eating communities. But as popular as the fish was, Ungar’s business was sinking, and he was told by his rabbi that the same man who saved his brother-in-law would save his business. Praeger was that man.

Praeger moved to Hackensack University Medical Center, and he invited his medical partner, Dr. Eric Somberg, to join. Ungar asked the doctors to help him turn his business around, to which they kindly declined – something they did several times until the day of Ungar’s son’s wedding, when the doctors finally agreed.

At first, their help was in the managerial sense – helping to reduce loans. Later, the surgeons became a silent partners with Ungar’s name at the helm, working as back-seat drivers. Soon, it was clear to Praeger and Somberg, as it already was to Ungar and his rabbi, that they were there to do more than just help out. In 1994, the two bought the company and brought in Jeffrey Cohen as part owner.

As the company grew, Praeger’s children, Larry and Danielle, began working at the company. Somberg’s wife, Ellen, also came on board with their son, Adam, who runs the manufacturing operations. The families now run the business in a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Elmwood Park, N.J., with about 70 employees. When the doctors bought the company, their first mission was expansion. As cardiac surgeons, they often heard complaints about the lack of tasty yet nutritional products. They saw this as a chance to fix that problem. “Unfortunately, the only product he was making at that time was gefilte fish,” Praeger says. “Gefilte fish wasn’t something that we thought would go very far, so over the next couple of years we started developing a heart-healthy product, and slowly, we progressed to come out with different products.”

It was about a year after buying the Ungar’s line that Praeger and Somberg decided to launch the line of sensible foods. However the company continues to carry the Ungar’s brand, which includes the original gefilte fish and other traditional Jewish foods such as blintzes and matzo balls. With the addition of several fish and vegetable food products within the Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods line, the manufacturer now has about 50 foods in the following categories:

  • Appetizers/snacks/side dishes
  • Fillet fish
  • Gefilte fish
  • Homestyle pancakes
  • Kids’ products
  • Minced fish
  • Pizza bagels
  • Veggie burgers
  • Veggie chicken
  • Passover foods

All of the products are kosher and all-natural, frozen foods. The company strives to create foods that are low in saturated fats, cholesterol and sugar. Several products are sugar-free and gluten-free; all are made with fresh vegetables or fish from cold northern waters.

The recipes infuse herbs and spices but exclude any artificial flavorings and colors. Praeger says the gefilte fish remains one of the company’s most popular items, but with each new product launch, the company introduces many food alternatives that consumers love. According to Praeger, it’s not just about the taste, but about the ingredients, as well.

“The basis for our products is not so much that it’s a health food, but that it’s a sensible choice,” Praeger says. “If you’re going to have a certain product, you might as well make sure that it’s done right.” One of the company’s most popular lines is the veggie burger made with ingredients like spinach, broccoli, peas, carrots and onions, which is designed to be heartier than the average veggie burger made from soy beans.

The Dr. Praeger California Veggie Burger topped the list of a Washington Post food critique searching for the best veggie burgers. The burger was dubbed “exceptional,” the highest designation on the list, while the line’s Tex-Mex burger was given an “acceptable” rating, the second-highest category on the list. The kids’ product line was featured on “Good Morning America” as a choice-food brand for children living vegetarian lifestyles. The line carries items like lightly breaded “fishies” and star- and dinosaur-shaped “littles” made out of broccoli, spinach, sweet potato or potato.

The potato pancake was featured on a Philadelphia news program as an alternative for fried latkes, a Passover staple. “For our potato pancakes, instead of using potato flakes that people use to make mashed potatoes, we use regular shredded potatoes,” Praeger says.

The company also was recognized by Kosherfest and received the 2004 Best New Passover Product award for Dr. Praeger’s Fish Fillets, which are potato crusted and made of Pollack and other ingredients. More recently, the company launched a host of new products at both the Natural Products Exposition East and West conferences. In Boston, the company introduced the Meatless All-American and Southwest Burgers, as well as the Chickenless Patties, Chickenless Buff­alo Patties, Chickenless Nuggets and Chickenless Buffalo Nuggets. These products are low in saturated fat and a good source of fiber with 11 and 18 grams of protein per serving, depending on the product. “We’re hoping the chickenless chicken will be very successful,” Praeger says. “It looks and pretty much tastes like chicken, but it’s a vegetarian product. Even though you’re really eating a plant-based product, you would think that it was regular chicken.”

Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods not only manufactures products for nutritional eating, it promotes it through social networking, as well.

Praeger’s blog, Sensible Dish, gives readers advice and recommendations on how to keep that ever-promised yet rarely achieved New Year’s resolution. It also explains what it means to eat kosher and the benefits of a kosher diet while dishing out recipes for spiced pumpkin cookies, veggie quesadillas and curried butternut squash soup. You can also follow the company on Twitter to find other tips.