The Blackstone Group has agreed to buy Pinnacle Foods Group Inc., whose brands include former Campbell Soup Co. staples Vlasic pickles, Swanson frozen dinners, and Mrs. Paul's frozen seafood, for $2.16 billion.

The deal, expected to close in the first half of this year, shows that deep-pocketed investors still have a strong appetite for venerable brands that were neglected by owners at some point in their history.

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Despite the neglect, some of Pinnacle's brands remain "almost woven into the American fabric," said Peter Madden, president of AgileCat, a marketing firm in Manayunk.

Pinnacle, which employs 150 in Cherry Hill and is managed from Mountain Lakes, N.J., was founded in 2001 when a private investment group bought Vlasic, Swanson and Open Pit sauces for $370 million from the bankrupt Vlasic Foods International Inc.

Two years later, Pinnacle bought Aurora Foods Inc. out of bankruptcy, adding Duncan Hines cake mixes, Log Cabin and Mrs. Butterworth's syrups, Lender's bagels, Aunt Jemima breakfast foods, Van de Kamp's seafood and other brands to its cupboard.

Pinnacle's brands, which also include Armour canned meats, generate about $2.1 billion in annual sales, according to Blackstone, which is buying Pinnacle from JPMorgan Partners L.L.C., J.W. Childs Associates, CDM Group, and former bondholders of Aurora Foods.

Blackstone said Roger Deromedi, who was ousted a year ago from his job as chief executive officer of Kraft Foods Inc., will become chairman of Pinnacle after the deal closes.

Pinnacle's debt was $972 million as of Sept. 24, according to Standard & Poor's, which yesterday put the company on CreditWatch with negative implications.

Pinnacle's current chairman, C. Dean Metropoulis, said in an interview that the cast-off brands he assembled benefited from the elimination of 35 percent of manufacturing and warehouse capacity and from improved financial management, which freed up money for marketing and new products.

Metropoulis said Pinnacle spent $150 million within the last three years to introduce about 70 new products. He said it spent millions to upgrade packaging, including a "freshness pouch" that prevents fish sticks from developing freezer burn.

Vlasic remains the largest U.S. pickle brand, with $154.39 million in sales during the 52 weeks ended Jan. 28, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks checkout data. Figures do not include sales at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Vlasic controls 31.4 percent of the retail pickle market, down from 38.4 percent in 2000.

Swanson, the original frozen TV dinner, was an "interesting challenge" because it hadn't kept up with marketplace innovation in the 1990s, Metropoulis said. This year, he said, the brand is being relaunched at a lower price - $1.29 each or 10 for $10.

Another brand with deep Philadelphia ties is Mrs. Paul's, founded in Manayunk in 1946 and owned by Campbell Soup from 1982 until 1996, when it was sold to Van de Kamp's Inc.

Madden, at AgileCat, said it would be interesting to see what Blackstone does with the Pinnacle brands. "I still think you need to treat brands in such a way that you are protecting the core of it," but updating it.

Pinnacle Brands

In addition to Vlasic and Swanson, Pinnacle Foods also produces a number of other brands:

Armour

Aunt Jemima

Celeste

Duncan Hines

Hungry Man

Lender's

Log Cabin

Mrs. Butterworth's

Mrs. Paul's

Open Pit

Van De Kamp's

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker

at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.