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Franco Harris

Franco Harris, Football Legend and Food Entrepreneur, Dead at 72

Dec. 21, 2022
In retirement, the Steelers running back resuscitated two inner-city food companies.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, main character in the most famous play in NFL history and who later became a food company entrepreneur, died overnight at the age of 72.

His death was announced this morning (Dec. 21), just two days before the 50th anniversary of “the Immaculate Reception,” a play considered the greatest play in NFL history and possibly the most dramatic in all of sports. He was to be honored this weekend at the Steelers-Las Vegas Raiders game, when his number would be retired.

After a storied career that included four Super Bowls and most valuable player honors, Harris decided to resuscitate failing, inner-city food companies that employed mostly minorities.

Harris and Lydell Mitchell were teammates at Pennsylvania State University, both running backs. They were early drafts picks in the 1972 NFL draft, Harris going to Pittsburgh and Mitchell to the Baltimore Colts. Both eventually set records for their teams and were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They remained friends and, when it was time to retire from the game, they put their heads and small (very small) fortunes together and bought failing food companies in the cities they loved. We wrote an Editor's Page on that in 2016.

Harris found a bakery in Pittsburgh in need of a cash infusion. Together they bought the bakery, renaming it Super Bakery, and set out to grow the business with an emphasis on healthier baked goods – an idea ahead of its time.

Then they bought Parks Sausage Co., a legend in Baltimore, out of bankruptcy. The company was started in 1951 by Henry Parks, who as a Black entrepreneur overcame many barriers to make his company a success. It became the largest minority-owned company in Baltimore and the first Black-owned company in the U.S. to go public. At one point, its single plant employed more than 200, almost all inner-city minorities.

We’re trying to get in touch with Super Bakery; at least a few years ago, it was still pumping out (among other products) the Super Donut, “fortified with minerals, vitamins and protein,” and using proprietary “NutriDough bakery fortifier.” The donut was welcome in many schools and other subsidized foodservice programs.

The story of Parks, unfortunately, does not have the happiest ending. Harris and Mitchell improved its finances but never got it back on solid ground. But they engineered the sale of the plant in the late 1990s to Dietz & Watson, apparently losing lots of their own money but saving many Baltimore jobs.

To understand how important and loved Harris was in Pittsburgh, there are two statues at the confluence of the four gate areas in Pittsburgh International Airport: one of George Washington (dressed as a British colonel) and the other of Harris making the Immaculate Reception.

About the Author

Dave Fusaro | Editor in Chief

Dave Fusaro has served as editor in chief of Food Processing magazine since 2003. Dave has 30 years experience in food & beverage industry journalism and has won several national ASBPE writing awards for his Food Processing stories. Dave has been interviewed on CNN, quoted in national newspapers and he authored a 200-page market research report on the milk industry. Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter who specialized in business writing, he holds a BA in journalism from Marquette University. Prior to joining Food Processing, Dave was Editor-In-Chief of Dairy Foods and was Managing Editor of Prepared Foods.

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