Robert E. Rich Sr., 92, a food industry pioneer who in 1945 created nondairy whipped topping, died Wednesday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. The cause of death was not disclosed.
During World War II, Rich was running Wilber Farms, a Buffalo, N.Y., dairy, and working with the War Food Administration. The war agency's diversion of milk products such as butterfat to U.S. soldiers caused Rich to begin thinking about developing nondairy alternatives for the home market.
When he heard scientists at a Ford Motor Co. laboratory were working on a nondairy whipping cream made from soybeans, he secured permission to experiment with the same process. After considerable trial and error, he came up with a soybean-based whipped topping that was superior to cream because it could be frozen.
Marketed under the name Rich's Whip Topping, it became a staple of school cafeterias, restaurants and bakeries. Soon Rich spun off nondairy icings, fillings, dessert toppings and a coffee creamer. His company, Rich Products, grew into an international operation with 7,000 employees and annual sales exceeding $2.5 billion.
Rich's contributions to the food industry were recognized in 1990 when he became one of the first four inductees in the National Frozen Food Industry Hall of Fame.