Herbert “Bud” Cook, 87, of Penn Valley and Jupiter, Fla., who with his mother Rose built the family’s small butcher shop in Northern Liberties into a major meat-packing enterprise, died Monday, April 2.
His son, Harry L. Cook, said Mr. Cook was driving to the doctor’s office when he lost consciousness. His car hit a tree near his winter home in Jupiter. Mr. Cook was pronounced dead of his injuries at the accident scene.
Mr. Cook was born in Philadelphia and raised during the Great Depression. His father was Harry Cook. Very early, his mother called him her “buddy,” and the nickname stuck. After that, he was known as “Bud.”
When his father died in 1950, Mr. Cook was forced to drop out of Germantown High School to help his mother run Cook’s Market, the small family grocery store with a butcher shop at Second and Poplar Streets. As a girl, his mother had had a similar start in life. One of six siblings growing up in Camden, she had sold produce on the street to help support her family.
“It was a hardscrabble life back then,” son Harry Cook said.
Mr. Cook and his mother steadily expanded the butcher shop into a leading processor of pork products and one of Philadelphia’s largest meat companies, Bluebird Foods.
“When he got there, things were in such disarray that he simplified the meat products to a smoked picnic ham, or pork shoulder,” Harry Cook said. By sharply reducing the number of meat products, he was able to improve the quality and quantity of the smoked picnic hams he could offer customers, his son said.
Then Mr. Cook, who had worked hard to interest the A & P Food chain in his product, got lucky. The chain accepted his offer to supply all its stores nationwide with the smoked picnic ham.
The business took off. Mr. Cook bought up properties on the west side of 2d Street and converted them into a production operation. When demand for the picnic hams outgrew that facility, he built a meatpacking plant in Philadelphia’s then-new Food Distribution Center. The new operation eclipsed the old, and eventually the facility at Second and Poplar was sold and the store closed.
To keep up with changes in the industry and run a competitive business, Mr. Cook taught himself finance, the law, and engineering and manufacturing principles. Bluebird Foods, with Mr. Cook as CEO, became a Fortune 500 company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Considered a pioneer by his peers, he developed a technique for curing picnic hams that cut the processing time from several weeks to only one. The hams were injected with curing ingredients on the way to the smokehouse. Previously, the curing ingredients were rubbed on by hand and the hams stored in a warehouse to cure.
“They were stacked on pallets,” Harry Cook said. “They had to be turned over. It was arduous labor.”
In 1979, Mr. Cook sold Bluebird Foods to Northern Foods, a British conglomerate. Several years later, he started a second company called Cook Foods Inc., a producer and marketer of ham. In the late 1980s, it was sold to ConAgra Foods, Inc., a packaged foods company in Chicago in exchange for stock.
In 2006, Smithfield Foods, Inc. announced an agreement to acquire the Cook’s ham business from ConAgra Foods, Inc. At the time, Cook’s hams had annual sales of about $330 million, said a ConAgra news release.
In addition to his business activities, Mr. Cook served on numerous Philadelphia-area corporate boards of directors such as the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital. He supported the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“If he were asked to name his greatest accomplishment, he would say it was not building a major pork packing company, but adoring his 16 grandchildren, 7 great-grandchildren, and his faithful dog, Ramsey,” his son said.
“I will remember him for his strength, charisma, enthusiasm and vision,” said his grandson, Michael Gevurtz. “To me, he was larger than life.”
Besides his son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he is survived by his wife of 64 years, Charlotte Elaine Cook; children Susan Gevurtz, Robert, and Eve Cook Smith; and Matthew Lerer whom he regarded as a son.
Funeral services will be at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 8, at Har Zion Temple, 1500 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley, followed by interment in Haym Salomon Memorial Park, Frazer.