Feature

Jeno Paulucci, 1918–2011

The visionary of frozen foods

Long before he established his ready-to-eat empire, Jeno Paulucci had demonstrated a singular talent for hawking food. After leaving school at 16, he took a job selling fruits and vegetables in his hometown of Duluth, Minn. One day, a refrigeration unit at the grocery broke, spraying ammonia over 18 crates of bananas. The shop owner considered the fruit ruined—they were speckled with brown dots—but Paulucci thought otherwise. He hiked the price and sold them on the street as rare Argentine bananas. “Get your Argentine bananas!” he shouted at passersby. “First time ever sold in Duluth!” They sold out in three hours.

The son of Italian immigrants, Paulucci grew up in dire poverty. “I can still remember my mama counting our money every night on the bedspread,” he said in 1977. “That put a phobia in me.” He hit on his first business idea in the late 1940s, when he noticed a booming market for Chinese meals. “The food industry was missing the boat, allowing the restaurants to handle all the take-home business,” he said in 1955. With $2,500 borrowed from a friend, he started canning his own version of chow mein, which included bits of celery, pimentos, and Italian herbs, said The New York Times.

His Chun King label quickly became a national brand, and Paulucci sold the company for $63 million in 1966. Two years later he set up Jeno’s Inc., which specialized in frozen pizza, lasagna, and a creation all his own: the pizza roll. Using a machine he’d invented to make Chun King egg rolls, Paulucci replaced the Chinese dish’s filling with traditional pizza toppings, said The Washington Post. He sold Jeno’s to Pillsbury in 1985 for more than $140 million.

Paulucci remained fiercely loyal to his roots, funding half a dozen civic organizations in Minnesota and co-founding the National Italian American Foundation. At a ceremonial dinner for the group in 1976, President Gerald Ford hailed Paulucci’s rise as a symbol of the “magic of America.” What could be more American, the president asked, “than a business built on a good Italian recipe for chop suey?”

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