Momma Knows Best

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Class of ’45 | In the freezing, subterranean depths of the Philadelphia meat-processing plant of Dietz & Watson, men and women wear face masks and rubber gloves as they work methodically to the thunderous clang of assembly lines and slicers. Wet smoke curls around their heads and the foamy slosh of sanitizer—poured by the gallon onto the floor—gathers about their galoshes. About one million pounds of meat—some 300 incarnations of hotdogs and salamis, hams and bolognas—are chopped, ground, molded, sliced, smoked, cured, and packaged here each week.

It’s industrial, all right, but it’s all so orderly, so odorless, so super-hygienic that any lingering visions out of The Jungle are hard to find.

Back upstairs, they’re completely banished. Tiny Ruth Eni Ed’45 GEd’46, 84, sits in a standard-issue conference room, cradling a docile bichon frise and stroking its head, comforting herself as much as the dog. She’s been at the helm of this $400 million operation since Gottlieb Dietz, her German immigrant father and the company’s founder, died in 1964, but really, she likes to stay behind the scenes.

A few minutes before, she’d changed from the T-shirt she wore to the office and suddenly became … Momma, the company spokesperson. A pearl necklace now peeks out from the collar of a crisp white blouse, and pearl studs glimmer at her ears. It’s an image familiar from print ads and billboards across the country: the matriarch, the doyenne, the chief executive who imperiously declares, “We’re the mother of all meats.”

Who would have guessed Eni was such an actress? In real life, the puff of hair that springs from her head is a warm gold, not a steely silver. And the glasses from behind which she peers are academic wire frames, not chic plastic ones. She speaks in a calm whisper, murmuring aphorisms like, “You work and you conserve. You’re careful about what you do. Errors cost money.”

Eni’s two sons (CEO Louis Jr. and COO Chris) and daughter (CFO Cindy) all insist that this Ruth is the genuine item—the one who still reviews every bill that comes in and every check that goes out, just as she did when she was the company’s only bookkeeper.

“For Mom, nothing has changed over the years,” says Louis, bracketed by portraits of Gottlieb, his grandfather, and his father, Louis Eni, who ran the company with Ruth until his death in 1996. “It’s always the same as when our grandfather was around. ‘Don’t get too big.’ ‘Don’t lose control.’ ‘Don’t bother doing anything unless it’s the best.’ 

“We constantly heard all of this at the dinner table,” he adds, “and it was a culture that was very enticing. It made it interesting for us, and natural that we’d all join the business.”

Like her kids—and now her eight grandchildren—Ruth grew up around the sausage-making operation that her father started in 1939, armed with a handful of recipes from the old country. School vacations saw Eni peeling frankfurters.

“We were raised to help out any way we could,” she explains. “We weren’t allowed to sit home and do nothing in the summer.”

Frugality and diligence were a way of life. Each year at Christmastime, Ruth and her sister, Lore, pulled down the same doll from its shelf, so it could be gifted with a new outfit or taken for a 50-cent hairwash. Each year, at the end of the holiday season, the doll was carefully packed away, stowed until the following winter. “I still have it,” Eni smiles.

She remembers being sent by her mother to the movies to score giveaway china and glassware. “But we weren’t allowed to stay for the show,” she adds. “We had homework to do!” The hard work paid off, and Eni was accepted at the college of her first choice, Penn, enrolling in the School of Education. “I had always admired teachers,” she says. “I thought the world of them.”

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Eni taught high school for a year. But the pull of the family business was strong.

“My father said, ‘You’re not making any money teaching. Does that make any sense?’” Eni recalls. “He said, ‘Come here — I pay better.’” There, Ruth and Lore worked as Jills of all trades, taking care of general office work. “We didn’t have departments, like we do now,” she says. “We did it all.”

Through the years, she saw it all, too: changes in diet and lifestyle (“We offered low-salt options before anyone else did,” Eni points out), increases in strict food-handling regulations, and growth to the No. 2 position in the field (after Boars Head).  

The “Momma” campaign is part of an effort to expand the company’s market beyond the Northeast.

“The more we delved into Dietz & Watson, the more we learned that they had all the classic attributes of a successful brand,” says Tim Reeves, CEO of Neiman Group, the campaign’s creators. “They were a family business, they had a long track record, they had a reputation for quality products, and they occupied a premium position in the marketplace. But the most compelling attribute, the one that personified the remarkable human story of that brand, was Ruth.”

The idea of an actress portraying the Momma character was considered but quickly dismissed. And although Eni was initially resistant—“I think my exact words were, ‘You’re kind of insane,’”—she eventually came around to the idea of assuming the starring role. 

Like everyone who works with Eni, Reeves takes note of her gentility and modesty. But, he says, he’s also noticed a “command to her that doesn’t have to be voiced, but is nevertheless there.” The agency picked up on that quality for the campaign. And no one but Ruth Eni could play the part.

“Besides,” she adds with a laugh, “I didn’t want to pay for an actress.”

—JoAnn Greco

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