May 27, 2024

Louis Stumberg, Who Brought Tex-Mex to TV Dinners, Dies at 87

His death, after a long illness, was confirmed by his son Herb.

It was in 1846 that members of the Stumberg family arrived in the United States from Germany and began making their way to San Antonio. For decades the Stumbergs ran a general store near the Alamo.

By 1946 Louis Stumberg had worked in the mines of West Texas. His father, Henry, was an electrical engineer. His brother, Edward, had served as a bomber pilot in World War II. Father and sons decided they could prosper by selling frozen vegetables to supermarkets in town and, they hoped, throughout Texas. It did not work.

“The reason they got into Mexican food was desperation,” Herb Stumberg said in an interview Thursday. Prices for frozen vegetables plummeted as other companies entered the national market.

Ed Stumberg, aware that many members of the military in town (there are five military bases in San Antonio) were taken by the local cuisine, suggested that frozen Tex-Mex might catch on. Having developed a taste for it, he reasoned, the service members might want to continue eating such fare after they returned home.

From a plant in San Antonio, the Stumbergs began shipping frozen tamales and chili across the state. “They would go to grocery stores and my father would put a clip under the hood of his car” over the engine block, Herb Stumberg said. “He would put a frozen dinner in that clip. That was the way he would heat it as a demonstration to the buyer.”

Louis Stumberg became president of Patio Foods in the late 1950s and the company eventually distributed burritos, enchiladas, tacos, chili, refried beans and rice nationwide — mostly as TV dinners. The company was acquired by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1967 and Mr. Stumberg was named vice chairman of RJR Foods.

Patio is now owned by ConAgra Foods, based in Omaha. But Jeff Mochal, a spokesman for ConAgra, said the company had signed an agreement in April to sell Patio to the JJ Snack Foods Corporation in Pennsauken, N.J.; the deal is expected to close this month. Mr. Mochal declined to provide information about Patio’s revenues or current production.

Louis Herbert Stumberg was born on April 17, 1924, to Henry and Leonora Booth Stumberg. His father died in 1966; his brother died in 1995. Besides his son Herb, he is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Mary Patricia Zachry; another son, Eric; a daughter, Diana; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Mr. Stumberg retired in 1986.

“My father, up until the day he went to the hospital, would eat Mexican food every Monday,” Herb Stumberg said. “An enchilada plate with refried beans.”

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