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Dr. Peter Praeger, surgeon, unlikely owner of food company


NEW YORK — Dr. Peter Praeger, a heart surgeon who saved a man’s life and as a result wound up owning a gefilte fish company — and who as a result of that wound up starting a successful natural-foods company — died Sept. 22 in Hackensack, N.J. He was 65.

The cause has not been determined, said his wife, Nurit. Dr. Praeger, who lived in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

At his death, Dr. Praeger was a co-chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center. He also was president and chief executive of Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, a maker of frozen natural foods, including veggie burgers and meatless chicken, sold in supermarkets and health-food stores in the United States and abroad.


The story of Dr. Praeger’s company — born of two rabbinical prognostications, any number of hairpin twists of fate, and the transformative realization that man cannot live by gefilte fish alone — reads like something out of Sholem Aleichem. But it began, no less, on a Christmas Eve.

It was the late 1980s, and Dr. Praeger was then on staff at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. That December night, he was called in with his colleague, Dr. Eric Somberg, to perform emergency surgery. The patient, who had been hit by a drunken driver, had a ruptured aorta, and his life was at risk.

Through the surgeons’ efforts the man’s life was saved, although he was left unable to move his arms and legs. The patient’s brother-in-law, Rubin Ungar, told Dr. Praeger that the family rabbi predicted he would regain the use of his limbs. As a man of science, Dr. Praeger discounted the idea, as did the neurologist he consulted.

The patient regained the use of his limbs.

Several years went by. Then one day in the early 1990s, Dr. Praeger received a call from Ungar, whom he had befriended in the course of treating his brother-in-law.


The patient was fine, but Ungar’s gefilte fish company was in trouble. The family rabbi had made another prediction: Any surgeon smart enough to save his congregant’s life would be smart enough to save his congregant’s brother-in-law’s gefilte fish company.

Dr. Praeger demurred: He was, after all, a surgeon, not a fish maven. Ungar persisted.

What was more, Dr. Praeger did not like gefilte fish, the pale, perennial Ashkenazi appetizer made from poached ground fish.

But who, in the end, can fly in the face of rabbinical foreordination?

‘‘It was like ‘The Godfather,’ ’’ Dr. Praeger told the magazine New Jersey Monthly in 2007. ‘‘They pulled me into it.’’

Peter Ivan Praeger was born in Budapest on Sept. 20, 1947. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956, his family left for the United States, settling first in Newark and then in Queens. His father worked as a baker and later opened a men’s clothing store in Harlem.

Peter Praeger earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Bridgeport and an MD from New York Medical College. At Hackensack, his responsibilities included implanting left ventricular assist devices, used to aid patients whose hearts are failing.

In the early ’90s, Dr. Praeger and Somberg became partners in Ungar’s Gefilte Fish. They soon realized that the company’s raison d’etre was also its undoing.

‘‘Unfortunately,’’ Praeger told the industry magazine Food and Drink in 2010, ‘‘the only product he was making at that time was gefilte fish.’’


In 1994, the two doctors bought the company and gradually developed a line of meatless frozen foods. All are kosher, made from natural ingredients, and low in cholesterol and saturated fat.

Dr. Praeger’s first marriage, to Ellen Epstein, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, the former Nurit Gavrielli, he leaves their daughter, Lexy, and son, Tommy; three children from his first marriage, Larry, Danielle, and Jonathan; a sister, Eva Freed; and two grandchildren.

Today, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, based in Elmwood Park, N.J., is a multimillion-dollar company, selling its products across the United States — retail outlets include Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Zabar’s — as well as in Canada, South America, and Israel. Its product line includes falafel, Tex-Mex veggie burgers, and sweet potato pancakes.

It also includes gefilte fish, which Dr. Praeger came to love.