Rose Totino, Patron Genius of Frozen Pizza
We don’t like to presume, but the chances are fairly good that you have a pizza in your freezer right now. After all, roughly two-thirds of all American households have at least one frozen pizza lurking in their freezer, according to industry reports, and sales of frozen and refrigerated pizza top more than $5.5 billion each year, shifting upwards of 350 million pies annually.
And you’ve really got one woman to thank for that: Rose Totino, the apple-cheeked second-generation Italian nonna with a serious head for business.
Rose Totino née Cruciani was born in 1915, the fourth of seven children; her parents had come to America from Italy just five years before, in 1910. She grew up in the Northeast neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lively European immigrant community, in a house with chickens and a sustenance garden in the backyard. Like other children in poor families, she started working at an early age, before leaving school at 16 to take a job cleaning houses for $2.50 a week. But even as a teenager, Rose had spirit: According to one story, retold in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, she took on Minneapolis Mayor George Leach to get her father’s city job back after he’d been fired for not being a “full-fledged citizen.”
Her life changed when she attended a dance party at the Viking Dance Hall in Minneapolis. It was there that Rose met Jim, a baker with, like Rose, no more than a 10th grade education. When they started courting, she was earning 37 cents an hour at a local candy factory, but Rose left work when the couple married in 1934. Two daughters soon followed and the Totinos settled into domestic life. Rose became a den mother to a Cub Scout troop, often treating the boys to little homemade pies topped with cinnamon and sugar, and volunteered at her daughters’ school, joining the PTA. Through the 1940s, she frequently attended PTA meetings armed with what soon became her famous pizzas, delicious pies topped with sausage, cheese and fresh sauces, the kinds of pies that she’d grown up eating herself.
Sugary pies for small boys and hearty Italian fare for PTA meetings soon turned into catering events for friends and acquaintances; as word got out about the Totinos' fantastic cooking, more and more people told them that they really ought to open a restaurant. So they did. By the 1950s, when the Totinos began exploring the idea of starting their own restaurant, pizza had already been in American for at least 50 years, carried over with the waves of Italian immigrants. But it had also stayed largely in Italian communities and in cities such as New York and Chicago; for most of America, pizza was still new, exotic fare that appealed to an increasing interest in “ethnic” cuisine. And in Minnesota, people had barely even heard of pizza – the story goes that when the Totinos applied to the bank for a loan (using their car as collateral), the members of the loan committee had no idea what pizza was, let alone why you’d want to open a restaurant to serve it. So Rose baked them a pie – and got the $1,500 loan they needed to open Totino’s Italian Kitchen.
Rose and Jim opened the restaurant, then a take-out only establishment, in 1951 at Central and East Hennepin Avenue, in the Northeast community they’d grown up in. Rose had figured that selling 25 pizzas per week would just about cover the rent, but within three weeks, the Totinos were making enough for Jim to quit his regular job as a baker and go into the pizza business full time. Jim made the crusts, Rose handled the toppings and sauce, and everything went into their custom brick ovens.
The Totinos sometimes worked as long as 18 hours a day, so exhausted at the end of the night that they barely had the energy to stuff their earned bills into a brown paper bag, scrawl the date on it, and stagger home. But the Totinos were also canny about advertising their product. Rose won over the good, but not yet pizza-eating people of Minneapolis the same way she won over the bank loan committee, by handing out samples. She also went on local TV, demonstrating live in black-and-white the deliciousness of pizza. Within a few years, the Totinos were serving up 120 pizzas a day, 400 to 500 pizzas on the weekends, and they’d long since put in tables, covered in checkered cloths, and expanded into the storefront next door.
But by the end of the decade, the Totinos had hit a limit: There were only so many pizzas they could make in a day. Their customers, craving more pizza than the Totinos could handle, suggested that the couple get their pizzas, frozen and ready to be baked at home, into local supermarkets.
Good idea – sort of. The Totinos had saved about $50,000 and plunged it all into a new venture, Totino’s Fine Foods, in 1962. They bought a plant in Fridley, Minnesota, and started making frozen pasta dinners – not pizza yet – but production was slow, the cost of ingredients was rising, and the end product not good. Within a year, they very nearly declared bankruptcy. “We lost our shirts,” Rose told the St. Petersburg, Florida Evening Independent in 1983. “We even debated about filing bankruptcy.” Instead, they doubled down.
Mortgaging everything they had, they eventually secured a loan from the Small Business Administration to buy new machinery that would allow them to make pizza crusts quickly. Back in business, this time they focused on the food that had made their name: pizza. (Family lore claims that the Totinos needed to figure out how to make a bunch of frozen pizzas quickly. Jim, spying his old pedal-operated record player, tried putting the frozen pizza on the turntable, and gave it a spin while squirting the sauce and tossing the toppings on. Fun, but unlikely?)
Within three months of launching their new product, they were steadily and rapidly making their way back into the black. Supermarkets across the Minneapolis area stocked their pizzas, and by the mid-1960s, Totino’s sales coverage had expanded well beyond the Twin Cities; they’d even had to open a second plant to handle the demand. Before the decade was even half over, Totino’s was the top selling frozen pizza brand in the United States.
The Totinos didn’t invent frozen pizza; several patents for methods of making pizza dough that could be frozen and cooked at home predated their business by at least a decade. And they weren’t even the first frozen pizza brand on the market; that honor goes to the New Jersey-based Celentano Brothers (the label still manufactures frozen Italian fare of the stuffed shells and parmigiana variety, but no pizza). But what the Totinos did do was to make frozen pizza edible – and for that reason, hugely successful. When the Totinos first started, freezer aisle pizza tasted about as good as the box that it came in, only probably a bit soggier. Rose and Jim, however, began experimenting with new ways to keep their crusts as crispy as they were at the restaurant and eventually worked out a method that they later patented. (Rose gave much of the credit for Totino’s taste to Jim, saying that he was the chef and she was the people person in their husband and wife team.)
At the height of their success, the Totinos sold their empire to Pillsbury in 1975 for a reported $22 million. In the interview with the Evening Independent eight years later, Rose cited Jim’s failing health and that the couple “had no sons to take over the business” as the reasons they sold out. That’s a statement that seems odd coming from the woman who, by all accounts, was an exceptionally adept manager with serious business acumen, and who had gone on to, at the age of 60, become Pillsbury’s first female corporate vice president.
Rose decided to stay with the company she and her husband had built, using her “people person” skills to make Totino’s domination over the frozen pizza market complete (for a time). She brokered deals, sold the line to supermarkets, even toured the budding talk show circuit. And as VP for research and development, Totino and several others filed a patent for their “Crisp Crust” technology, a method of making sure a “fried dough” pizza shell stayed crispy and didn’t suffer from a “somewhat leathery or cardboard like texture” after cooking, in 1977. (The patent, which was held by Pillsbury, was granted in 1979.) She even featured prominently in the company’s advertisements for Totino’s pizza, dressed in the part of the baking Italian nonna wearing a wholesome red gingham apron and a cheery smile.
Jim died in 1981, and Rose finally moved out of Northeast Minneapolis. She stayed with Pillsbury until she reached 70, the company’s mandatory retirement age, although according to some sources, she was a regular presence at Pillsbury’s offices into the early 1990s. The brand that she built is still going strong: Totino’s has sales of over $380 million a year, making it the second most popular frozen pizza brand on the market. (The original Totino’s Italian Kitchen, run by a Totino grandson, was a beloved and storied part of the Minneapolis culinary scene until it moved from its Hennepin Avenue location in 2007 to the suburbs, where it closed for good in 2011.)
Rose died in 1994, at the age of 79. In 1993, the year before her death, she became the first woman elected to the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (which, by the way, is a real thing that actually exists). “Never beyond my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d ever grow this big,” she said, in her interview with the Evening Independent. “We didn’t plan on setting the world on fire. We just knew how to make good pizza.”