Rose Totino, founder of the eponymous Totino’s Pizza, brought the famed Italian pizzas to American taste buds in an easy-to-eat, frozen package. She charted its growth from a small takeaway in Minneapolis to becoming the #1 pizza maker in the US in the next 20 years. Not only a suave businesswoman, Totino is also fondly remembered for introducing the first pizza dough suitable for freezing and subsequent baking.
Rose Totino was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1915, in a small town in Minneapolis. Brought up in poverty her entire childhood, Totino dropped out of school at 16 to help manage the household expenses. She imbibed the virtues of hard work and ethics from her parents, and never shied away from spending long hours cleaning people’s homes to earn an honest living.
At 19, Rose married Jim Totino, a baker. The couple shared a common dream of opening a pizzeria—an ode to their Italian roots. They had to wait 20 long years before finally scraping enough money to realise their dreams.
Pizza with a dash of pizzazz
In 1951, Rose and her husband established Totino’s Italian Kitchen in Northern Minneapolis. At that time, pizzas were majorly limited to Italian communities; elsewhere, they were popular only in the urban districts of New York and Chicago. Residents of Minnesota had barely even heard of pizza; so when Rose went to the bank to apply for a loan, she had to come armed with pizza samples to convince the officials. Convince she did, and returned home with $1,500 to start her restaurant.
Originally conceptualised as a takeaway restaurant, frequent visits by large families compelled the couple to add a few tables and chairs, making Totino’s a sit-out restaurant in the process. Business was tough, but success superseded the hard work.
“We were so worn out at night that we didn’t even count the money; we just put it in a bag,” Rose used to say of her 18-20-hour workday. At the restaurant, Jim would bake the crusts and Rose would apply the toppings, using a recipe passed down through generations.
As time passed, Totino’s pizza became a rage. Within three weeks of its opening, Totino’s was earning enough to allow Jim to quit his job as a baker and work full-time at the restaurant. Totino’s Italian community was also very supportive, encouraging them to sell their pizzas to other states as well.
Totino’s Fine Foods—a failed venture
In 1962, a decade after their restaurant’s opening, the couple decided to move into frozen foods. The decision was taken partly because they were unable to serve the never-ending lines of customers queued outside Totino’s, and many wanted to make the pizza at home. Also, the frozen food market was booming in America, and frozen pizza had not yet reached American household freezers.
Ever the risk-takers, the couple decided to take the plunge and invest their entire life’s savings to start their frozen food venture. However, things didn’t turn out exactly the way they had envisioned.
For starters, the couple decided to mass produce frozen pasta rather than pizza. Coupled with rising ingredient costs and a mediocre end product, the venture tanked badly. The losses couldn’t even compensate the profits of their restaurant, and for a while the company bordered on the verge of bankruptcy.
One fine day, while driving along St. Louis Park, Rose prayed to God for some intervention to save their sinking ship. Her prayers were heard, for only a day later the Small Businesses Administration granted Totino’s a $50,000 loan to build a frozen pizza factory.
The frozen pizza revolution
With renewed vigour, Rose spent months perfecting her sauce and toppings, which would remain fresh and crisp even after thawing or heating in a microwave, eventually igniting the frozen pizza revolution.
The result was mind-blowing. Frozen pizzas flew off the shelf before anyone could say ‘Ciao’—it took barely a decade for Rose to emerge as the #1 maker of frozen pizzas in the then hypercompetitive frozen foods market.
The mass production of frozen pizzas was, in fact, a brainwave of Jim’s—he used, of all things, an old phonograph turntable. In the place of its arm, he fitted a plastic tube that was attached to a bucket of sauce. A foot pedal would control the circular movement of the turntable. As the turntable revolved, sauce automatically topped the crust. His invention was instrumental in the mass production of Totino’s frozen pizza and helped to launch the “Nobody tops a pizza like Totino’s” era.
From deal-breaker to deal-maker
By the time the 70s rolled on, Totino’s was already among the top frozen food makers in the country. At that time, Jim’s health started flailing, and Rose found it difficult to manage the entire business on her own.
What seemed like another of God’s intervention, Pillsbury came knocking on Totino’s door to acquire the pizza chain, with an offer of $16 million. Rose refused, adamant that Totino could fetch a higher price. The deal went back and forth for a while, but Totino’s unrelenting stand compelled Pillsbury to offer $20 million, which Rose happily accepted.
Creating the perfect crust
Though the business deal was through, Rose still lamented the fact that the frozen pizza crust always tasted like “the cardboard box it comes packed in”. As the first female vice-president at Pillsbury, she spent long hours with the research & development team, perfecting the crust of the frozen pizza.
After weeks of experimentation, Rose finally cracked the formula, leading to a stupendous spike in sales and a tighter grip of Totino’s on the frozen foods market.
After Rose retired from Pillsbury, she spent a majority of her time and money with charities to promote noble causes. Always indebted to Minnesota for supporting her venture, she donated millions to its Northwestern College.
Rose’s moment of glory came when she was inducted into Minnesota Business Hall of Fame and the Frozen Food Hall of Fame. A true visionary and thinker beyond her times, Rose sure helped fill a lot of hungry stomachs; her coveted pizza recipe and quest for perfection made Totino’s Pizza the frozen food giant it is today.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.