Momma Dietz wasn’t expecting a gift of diamonds in commemoration of her family business’ 75th anniversary. In fact, her children and grandchildren asked the Dietz & Watson company matriarch to hit the road.
Actually, that’s a good thing for Ruth Dietz Eni, who must step outside her real-life persona only slightly to personify her company’s grandmotherly public face. Last month, Eni launched a personal whirlwind tour of the country. She’s planning to visit about 10 cities this summer and early fall, when she’ll meet up with the D&W lunch truck as its crew tackles a monumental 200-day, 25-city journey from Atlantic to Pacific and back again.
The year 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of Philadelphia’s favorite premium deli meats producer, which has grown to become one of the nation’s largest. The tour will celebrate the milestone and, company officials hope, promote continued growth.
“We really wanted to do something outside our normal advertising campaign. And we always say, the best way to sell our product is to get people to taste it,” said Lauren Eni, the firm’s vice president of brand strategy and Momma Dietz’s granddaughter.
Lauren Eni represents the fourth generation of her family involved in the business. In 1939, Ruth’s father Gottlieb Dietz, a German immigrant sausage maker, bought the ailing Watson Meat Company while keeping former owner Walter Watson on as sales manager. In addition to renaming the business, Gottlieb (a German name meaning “God’s love”) adopted the mantra “quality above all else.”
While the company remained relatively small for several decades, product quality remained top priority. Everyone in the founder’s household contributed, including Ruth from an early age.
“We had no vacations. We went to work,” Momma Dietz said. “My father worked constantly and mom came along, too, and helped. I think we ate and slept Dietz & Watson. We loved it. At dinner, we always discussed business. I wanted to become a teacher and my father said, ‘Does that make sense when you’ve got our business.’ ”
Gottlieb Dietz passed away in 1964, leaving the company to his children. Ruth Dietz Eni with her late husband Louis expanded the company from its modest origins at Front and Vine streets. Today, the firm employs about 1,300 and operates a 320,000-square-foot headquarters in the Tacony section of the Northeast, along with a comparable plant in Baltimore. The company is in discussions with public officials on both sides of the Delaware to replace its 300,000-square-foot Delanco, N.J., distribution center that succumbed to fire last September.
“We have a few sites in mind, including our original site in Jersey,” Lauren Eni said. “We hope in the very, very near future to have an announcement [on that]. We haven’t ruled out any possibility.”
It will be a family decision at any rate. Eight relatives hold positions in the company. Ruth Dietz Eni is chairman, while her son Louis Eni is CEO. Ruth’s daughter Cindy Yingling is chief financial officer, with Ruth’s son Chris Eni as chief operating officer.
“I’m quite proud of this. It’s a shame [my father] can’t see how we’ve grown,” Ruth said. “I hope he’s looking down.”
The executives share the family vibe with employees, many of whom work year-round in the chilly meat processing rooms, bundling up each day for winter regardless of the temperature outside.
“We treat them like part of the family,” Ruth said. “We do the best to make them comfortable. They eat the same we eat. They get free lunch every day.”
Workers from the Tacony plant were first to taste delicacies from the D&W truck on April 8 just before it embarked on the months-long road trip. The menu included Chef Roc Street Tacos, Turkey Tortilla Soup, Pasta and Sausage and Hawaiian Fried Rice.
Phil Carnevale, a 41-year employee from Pennypack Woods, remembers the old days at Front and Vine. While production methods have evolved, the company still doesn’t compromise the quality of its products, which include more than 520 meat and cheese delicacies.
“We did everything by hand. That was the only way,” Carnevale said. “You didn’t have all this technology then. [But] they always treated you good. You go to work, do a good job and have pride and that makes everything successful.”
Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Carnevale added, “Above all else, be true and loyal to yourself. You’ve also got to be true to other people. You’ve got to take pride in what you make.”
As for the frigid working environment, Carnevale said, “You’ve just got to wear a couple of thermals. It’s not that bad. We’ve got to keep the meat cold.”
According to Lauren Eni, the D&W truck was to make its first official stop in Houston before heading west to California, east to Florida, up the coast to New England and eventually back to Philly. It will be at the Jersey Shore for Labor Day.
The crew will customize recipes to each locale, demonstrating the variety and versatility of the company’s products. There will be quesadillas with Santa Fe Turkey Breast in the Southwest and Chicago Dogs in the Windy City.
“We have distribution in every state. We’ve grown tremendously in the last few years in California,” Lauren Eni said. “We have very loyal and nostalgic consumers who demand the brand when they move out of the area. Plus, we’ve worked really hard in the last fifteen years in establishing our retail trade. … We have a lot of pride and that’s what really inspires us to keep it going and maintain the quality.” ••
For company information, products and recipes, visit www.dietzandwatson.com