James S. Herr, 87, founder of snack-food brand

started the company with his wife, Miriam, when he was just 21 years old.
started the company with his wife, Miriam, when he was just 21 years old. (James S. Herr)
Posted: April 12, 2012

James S. Herr, 87, who as a 21-year-old former chicken farmer founded Herr's potato chips and turned them into what is today one of the Mid-Atlantic region's most iconic snack brands, died in the arms of his wife, Miriam, Thursday, the date of their 65th wedding anniversary.

Mr. Herr's death at his West Nottingham Township home marked the passing of a man described as hard-working, profoundly spiritual, and determined to run Herr Foods Inc. with the same compassion that characterized his Mennonite faith, even as the company grew into an enterprise with more than $100 million in annual sales and business in nearly a dozen states.

"One of the simplest ways I can put it is, he loved God, and he loved people," his son, Edwin Herr, of Nottingham, said Friday.

Friends and family said Mr. Herr was modest and possessed an integrity and old-fashioned work ethic that distinguished him both as a man and as a leader, particularly given the dog-eat-dog ethos that often typifies the business world.

"He believed in the value of people and the value of hard work," said Ed Herr, who is president of the company, which has headquarters and a potato-chip factory in Chester County.

"In all my [40] years working in the food industry, I have never met a man as sincere and concerned about not only his family, but all his employees," said John Stanton, a member of the Herr Foods board for the last 15 years.

"He knew, I think, everyone in that plant on a first-name basis," said Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University.

Mr. Herr was a lifelong philanthropist, but few people knew. He took pains to keep it private, Stanton said, so that no one would believe it was an effort to promote his company.

"I think this was a piece of who J.S. Herr was," Stanton said, noting only that the causes dear to Mr. Herr were social and spiritual in nature.

Herr's potato chips and their trademark glossy, colorful packaging are among the most well-known brands to originate, and endure, in this region. A mainstay of local supermarkets, delis, and Super Bowl parties, they are as ubiquitous around Philadelphia as Doritos are nationally. Mr. Herr and his son were often the face of the company in TV commercials identifying them simply as "Jim and Ed."

Mr. Herr entered the potato-chip business 66 years ago because he had just spent his teenage years tending to 2,000 laying hens, satisfying a familial obligation that he and his siblings work on the family farm until age 21.

With "just him in this big building with chickens," according to his son, Mr. Herr grew itchy. Such isolation was counter to his gregarious nature. "He wanted to do something that would get him out and be around people."

So in 1946, Mr. Herr and his soon-to-be wife (they were engaged) agreed to buy a small potato-chip company in Lancaster County.

Cost: $1,750. They would be partners.

"It was a one-man operation; he would make the chips by day and pick up my mother, and they would sell chips, door-to-door, on their dates," Ed Herr said.

Stanton attributed the company's subsequent success to Mr. Herr's humble hard work. There was no task he would ask of his workers that he wouldn't do himself. Mr. Herr was uncommonly concerned about his more than 1,000 employees. Plus, the family remained "obsessed" with taste and customer service, Stanton said.

And while many families cash out successful businesses by selling to competitors and pocketing a fortune, Mr. Herr did not. That was not his style.

"My dad said, 'Always try to be a blessing to people,' " his son recalled.

Mr. Herr died of complications from pneumonia. He was active in his church, Mount Vernon Mennonite, and remained an active board member at Herr Foods even in the final months of his life.

"We lost a tremendous Christian businessman," said lifelong friend and former State Rep. Art Hershey.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Herr is survived by daughters June Gunden of Peachtree City, Ga., and Martha Thomas of Kirkwood; sons James M. of Nottingham and Gene of Kirkwood; brothers Christian of Willow Street and Ira of Ephrata; a sister, Anna Mae of Phoenix, Ariz., and 20 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Plans were pending for a public visitation next weekend and a memorial service in several weeks. Details will become available at www.herrs.com or by calling Herr's at 800-344-3777. Interment was to be private.

Donations may be made to the Herrs Foundation, Box 300, Nottingham 19362. Arrangements were being handled by the Edward L. Collins Jr., Funeral Home in Oxford.

Contact Maria Panaritis

at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritis on Twitter.

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