A tale of two different generations, a couple of empires, and the son of Italian immigrants.
Jeno Paulucci died last week. The name might not mean much to you, but it should. A Northern Minnesota entrepreneur, Jeno started numerous food companies, built them up, sold them, and started some more.
He was the leading citizen of my home town, Duluth, Minnesota.
Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, iron mine country, Jeno started his career in the food industry working for the family grocery store. During the 1940s, Jeno developed the “Chun King” line of cook at home Chinese foods – by the early 60s, it was bringing in $30 million and a year, and he sold it to RJ Reynolds in 1966 for $63 million dollars. He was in his mid 40s.
Chun King had a variety of products, like canned “chop suey” and crispy chinese noodles.
This was my first introduction to “Chinese” food, actually, as Duluth had no Chinese (or any other ethnic ) restaurants at the time. My mother would heat the chop suey in a sauce pan and serve it over the crispy noodles. She also would, on occasion, serve other things over those noodles which we won’t go into here. (Hint, as with many Minnesota family dinners, it involved a can or two of “Crema” soup!). (When I lived in China for 8 years, I discovered…..<you fill in the blanks> LOL).
Jeno’s other local enterprise was “Jeno’s”, maker of frozen pizzas, and inventor of “pizza rolls.” Jeno’s was a huge employer in Duluth, and he constantly bragged about “employing the unemployable,” and to an extent, that was true. A large portion of the workforce in the food plant were workers who probably would not qualify for many ‘traditional’ jobs.
He was a huge philanthropist in the city, as was his wife, and today one will find buildings and parks with the Paulucci name imprint.
But his kind side was balanced by a “tough as nails” business approach, and when the city wouldn’t bow to his frequent demands for concessions of one type of another, he would threatened to move the operations out of town, and eventually, he did.
Paulucci sold the Jeno’s brand to Pillsbury (now part of General Mills) in 1985 for $135,000,000, and they merged it into their Totino’s operation.
And here I digress for a moment. Rose Totino owned a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in North Minneapolis, back in the day. Rose developed a take-out frozen pizza, selling out to Pillsbury, and becoming a VP at her acquirer.
Years later, as an ad salesman in Minneapolis, Totino’s was my account, and it was in the hands of a company called Paragon Advertising. It was my day to make a pitch for my radio station, and I was always looking for ways to make an impression on a client. That day, I donned a chef’s outfit, picked up a pile of pizzas from the original Totino’s pizzeria, and wheeled them into the conference room at Paragon. I got the buy. (BTW, the pizzeria pies in no way resembled the recipe for the frozen ones, then or now).
Fast forward. Totino’s and Jeno’s still exist and thrive, though strictly at the budget end of frozen pizza choices. You can frequently find them on sale for about a buck or so, they are small (@ 10 ounces), thin crust, crispy pizzas. The Totino’s box claims they are “America’s best selling frozen pizza” and they might just be.
They require 13-15 minutes in a conventional oven (they are not microwavable).
They have mastered the “crispy crust” over the years, which is my personal preference. The toppings tend to be diced bits of meat, today’s “combination” includes “sausage, pepperoni, and pepperoni seasoning.” The meats are chicken and pork recipes.
They’re ok products to feed the kids for a weekend snack when you need something hot and quick. Though if your children are on fat or salt-restricted diets, you can find healthier choices.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Jeno went on to create Michelina’s, one of the world’s largest ‘heat and eat’ meal companies, with a wide variety of entrees.
And since he always regretted selling the pizza rolls, and because eventually his non-compete (I assume) ran out, Michelina’s is even in that segment today, but they are called “snack rolls.”
They even have a pizza or two.
The world will miss Jeno, as will Duluth.