Ernest Fox, 90, developed vending machine snacks

March 18, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Ernest H. Fox, who with his brother developed the snack cracker for vending machines, died of a heart attack Sunday at Northwest Medical Center. He was 90 and a resident of North Oaks Retirement Community in Pikesville.

In 1935, Mr. Fox and his brother, Martin Fox, responded to an ad in a Baltimore newspaper that read: "Great opportunities for wide-awake person to take over food products manufacturing."

Instead of a bustling plant, the brothers found two sisters in a small room, spreading peanut butter on crackers and wrapping them in wax paper.

The company's assets were a large porcelain pan, two 50-pound cans of peanut butter, four boxes of gummed labels, wax paper and boxes of crackers.

The owner wanted to sell for $1,500 but the brothers paid him $200 for Austin Packing Co. and moved it to their basement and made the snacks by hand.

Ernest Fox devoted his efforts to sales and manufacturing was left to Martin Fox, who he described as a "mechanical genius" in a 1963 interview in American Automatic Merchandiser, an industry publication.

Soon, Martin Fox invented a machine that made the sandwiches and another machine that wrapped them. The company, which was among the first to use cellophane as a wrapper, moved to a building at Tacoma and Maisel streets in Southwest Baltimore.

Business took off in 1939 when a friend -- a bottler with soft drink machines -- told them that he couldn't sell candy bars in his machines because they would melt in the summer.

"He liked our product but the package was in the shape of a cube, so he asked me if we could take the four sandwiches, position them two-by-two and wrap them for vending," Mr. Fox said in the interview.

The bottler wanted 100 packages to test -- the brothers gave him 200.

"Remember that those candy machines were next to soft drink machines. It was a natural -- a soft drink and a cracker. The 200 packages were sold out in three days," Mr. Fox said in the interview.

Austin Packing Co.'s Vendapak of snacks soon became a fixture on the American scene, especially with the outbreak of World War II.

"It was an inexpensive food item that during the war provided sustenance," said his daughter, Jeanie Lazerov of Highland.

Success brought a modern plant in the 2900 block of rTC Washington Blvd. in 1953 and a name change -- Austin Biscuit Co. -- in 1959. A year later, Fairmont Foods bought the company and closed the Baltimore plant in 1968.

Mr. Fox, who was chief executive officer of Austin, a division of Fairmont, retired in the early 1970s.

Today, Austin Quality Foods, a division of Bahlsen Inc., is in Cary, N.C.

Born in East Baltimore, Mr. Fox left high school after three years to help support his family, working as a shipping clerk and later establishing a restaurant with his brother in 1928.

During World War II, he served in the Navy.

He was a member of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation.

In 1937, he married Marie Kaiss, who died in 1996.

Services were held Monday.

He also is survived by a sister, Sarah Harris of Pikesville; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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