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RICH PRODUCTS Corp. owes part of its success to one of America's most successful eccentrics, Henry Ford, who predicted that cars someday would be made of a plastic substance based on soybean oil.

Ford established a laboratory in Michigan named after George Washington Carver, whose work with peanut oil Ford admired. The lab developed various soy food products, including soy milk, but never succeeded in making a soy car.

Robert E. Rich first heard about Ford's experiments during World War II when Rich, then a successful Buffalo dairy operator, was commuting by train to Michigan to represent independent milk distributors at the Agriculture Department's War Food Administration.

"One day a purchasing agent for the Ford hospital came in to see me and he wanted points to buy butter," Rich said. "I told him we were just regulating milk. He said, 'That's of no interest to us; we make our own milk out of soybeans.' My eyes lit up. All my life I had been in dairy products and I had never heard of soy milk."

Fascinated by the possibilities, Rich toured the lab and decided he wanted to make soy milk. He said he was bored with the dairy business, where there was little room for innovation and "you just kept your trucks clean and had contests with your men. It was kind of a pain."

Rich asked Ford Motor Co. for permission to use its process and copy its equipment. The reply came from a senior counsel at Ford. "He said 'Young man, did it ever occur to you that the Ford Motor Co. sells a lot of cars and tractors to America's dairy farmers?' And I said 'I suppose you do a lot of business with soybean farmers too.' "

So in 1945 he asked a Buffalo dairy equipment company, R.G. Wright, to make the equipment and bought soybean oil from Spencer Kellogg & Sons Inc. in Buffalo, which was using the oils for shortening, paint and animal feed.

Rich and three associates then developed a whipped topping from soy that whipped to four times its original volume, compared to two for heavy cream.

The next stop was an idea borrowed from his family's ice cream business, which was selling an eclair made with ice cream in Florida. Rich Products developed a frozen chocolate eclair in 1954, which was opposed by bakers, "not realizing all the animal putrefaction you can find in milk products as opposed to a pure vegetable product," he said.

Soy-based products gave Rich's another boost in 1961 when it launched Coffee Rich, the first frozen non-dairy coffee creamer.

Coffee Rich got the company in a big fight with the powerful dairy industry, which was protected by strict laws against cream substitutes.

"At the time only seven states allowed what was called filled cream, which was skim milk with vegetable fat," he said. "You couldn't take it across state lines. One state had a plant that straddled state lines and in the 1940s the government sued them and the president went to jail for six months."

Beginning with California, Rich had to fight lawsuits in 40 states launched by milk interests that wanted containers to carry the tag "imitation" in bigger letters than the product's name.

Rich argued that Coffee Rich was not filled cream but a non-dairy alternative, "a replacement, not an imitation," he said.

By 1974, the company had won all 40 lawsuits.

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