Marilyn Price Birnhak, founder and president of Weight Watchers of Philadelphia Inc., died Jan. 13 due to complications from pancreatic cancer at Lankenau Medical Center. She was 85.
The Fern Rock native founded the Philadelphia cohort more than 50 years ago and holds the title for the longest continuously owned and operated Weight Watchers franchise.
The business is a family affair: Her husband, Bob, is the secretary and treasurer; son John is the executive vice president; her late mother, Reba Price, clerked and ran the bookkeeping for 25 years before her retirement; and her late daughter, Tracey Birnhak, was vice president of marketing and business development before her 2004 death from breast cancer.
“My parents built this company from scratch,” John Birnhak said. Marilyn Birnhak first joined Weight Watchers while living in New York, attending classes with founder Jean Nidetch. The Birnhaks each lost roughly 40 pounds.
Inspired, the couple started their own Philadelphia franchise in Mount Airy in 1964 with two meetings and eight members. Now, the company employs 500 people serving more than 20,000 members weekly in 450 meetings across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.
“They realized it wasn’t actually about the diet,” added John Birnhak, who noted the diet was a single page from the New York City Board of Health. “The success came from the meetings, from the support that they got, from the instruction they got, and they knew that was the best way to approach weight loss.”
Marilyn Birnhak remained involved in the business until her death, along with philanthropic endeavors. Both Marilyn and Bob Birnhak were honored for their charity by the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the Philadelphia Theatre Company and the National Liberty Museum.
John Birnhak said she wanted to ensure gifts were significant in value, like funding an ambulance for Magen David Adom or building the Birnhak Transition Care Unit at the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life.
“It wasn’t about the fundraising — it was [about] what she could do to help these organizations be better,” he said.
They also supported the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, The Wellness Community, United Way, American Heart Association, Alzheimer’s Association, Weight Watchers of Philadelphia Feeds The Hungry, National Kidney Foundation and Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Even though Weight Watchers meetings ran long, John Birnhak said his mother always did whatever she could to support him — except his junior high wrestling team, he said with a laugh.
In the early years, he remembered a reporter asking his mother if the franchise discriminated. “Absolutely,” she quipped. “We discriminate against thin people.”
“That was her approach,” John Birnhak said. “That movement from different social institutions created a void that Weight Watchers filled. It was a place that everyone could come together from every possible background imaginable … and they had one purpose, and that was to lose weight. And they all supported each other.”
The funeral was held Jan. 17 at Beth Sholom Congregation, where the Birnhaks are active members and board directors.
In addition to Bob and John, Marilyn Birnhak is survived by daughter Valerie; brother Stuart Price; grandchildren Lauren, David, Aleks and Rae; and several nieces and nephews.