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Obituary: Robert G. Hofmann / Supplied breakfast sausage to 5,000 McDonald's restaurants

Friday, November 08, 2002

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a bit of luck and ingenuity, Robert G. Hofmann helped turn the family's Pittsburgh meat packing business into a major supplier of pre-cooked sausage to McDonald's and other restaurants.

Mr. Hofmann, 82, former president of North Side Packing, died Wednesday at his home in Wexford. The apparent cause of death was heart failure, according to family members.

The family business, begun in 1909 as a butcher shop and now named North Side Foods, was a typical meat processor producing hams, lunch meats and hot dogs until the 1970s, when Mr. Hofmann and his late brother Richard started a business relationship with McDonald's restaurants in Pittsburgh.

Restaurant owner M.J. Delligatti, who created the Big Mac sandwich in 1967, a few years later introduced hot cakes and sausage to two McDonald's stores he owned Downtown and approached North Side Packing to supply the meat.

The breakfast experiment was successful and drew the attention of McDonald's Corp. But a company representative told the Hofmann brothers that the chain was only interested in pre-cooked sausage so the meat could be quickly prepared in the same amount of time that it took to cook the hot cakes.

North Side Packing then had no cooking capacity and the two brothers asked McDonald's to give them another day. They stayed up all night trying different cooking methods, Mr. Hofmann's son, Robert G. Hofmann II, recalled yesterday.

After a number of failed attempts, they hit on a solution by attaching a hose to a radiator and using the steam to heat a tin can on which they had placed a meat patty. The result was a moist product that could be frozen and quickly reheated.

"They wanted to be able to flip the pancake and flip the sausage patty at the same time," the younger Hofmann said of McDonald's.

Although the cooking process has changed over time, the event led the company to become a major supplier of pre-cooked sausages to McDonald's. Today North Side Foods employs 257 people and supplies 5,000 McDonald's restaurants from Maine to Florida.

"He was a very nice gentleman, and the service he provided for McDonald's was great," Delligatti said yesterday.

By 1978, the company had pretty much hitched its wagon to McDonald's and stopped producing other products. In 1990, the company left Spring Garden and opened two sausage processing operations, one in Arnold near New Kensington, where the company is now based, and the other in Georgia.

North Side Foods was acquired in 1998 by meat giant Smithfield Foods Inc., which had supplied pork to the company. The business continues to be operated by Robert G. Hofmann II and his brother, Mark.

As a unit of Smithfield, North Side Foods sold about 81 million pounds of pre-cooked sausage in fiscal 2002 and had sales of about $87 million. Its products are sold under the Ember Farms, Smithfield Premium and Gwaltney brand names.

Mr. Hofmann grew up with the business, which was then attached to the family home in Spring Garden. The plant was connected to the house through a door in the kitchen.

As a young man, Mr. Hofmann played the drums. At 18, he left home and went to Atlantic City to work with a band. When he returned to Pittsburgh about a year later, he worked evenings as a drummer at the Stanley Theater, where he met the composer Erroll Garner. He played in an Army band in World War II and rejoined the family company as a salesman after the war.

On more than one occasion, Mr. Hofmann pledged all of his personal assets to keep North Side Packing going, his son recalled, adding that his father adroitly managed to pay attention to both the business and his family.

"My brother and I feel we had a very good father. He really balanced both of his roles well and he was very successful in both," Robert II said. "We realize how hard that is to do now that we have families."

Mr. Hofmann enjoyed playing golf and was a charter member of the Wildwood Golf Club. He also played in Florida, where he spent winters, and at the Oakmont Country Club, where he belonged to a regular playing group called SWAT.

Philip Boxwell, an insurance executive who regularly played at Oakmont with Mr. Hofmann, described him as a generous man who once repaid the gift of a shirt he had admired with two other shirts of better quality.

"He loved golf. I think he was happiest when he was on the golf course," Boxwell said.

Mr. Hofmann and his wife Nancy, who died Oct. 15, traveled extensively, always bringing home videos to show family and friends. He showered his grandchildren with gifts, including gadgets and mechanical toys.

Until slowed last year by illness, Mr. Hofmann regularly rode a golf cart in his Wexford neighborhood, where he was known as "the mayor." He would say hello to everyone, especially children, family members said.

In addition to sons Robert, of Fox Chapel, and Mark, of Hampton, Mr. Hofmann is survived by five grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. today in Simons Funeral Home Inc., 7720 Perry Highway. A Mass will be celebrated at 9 a.m. tomorrow in St. Mary's Church, 2510 Middle Road, Glenshaw. Interment will be in Allegheny Memorial Park Cemetery, McCandless.

Contributions may be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor, 1028 Benton Ave., Pittsburgh 15212.

Jim McKay can be reached at jmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1322.

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