Some sad news for hungry potheads everywhere: Jeno Paulucci, a Minnesota food magnate who popularized pizza rolls in 1968, died Thursday — just four days after his wife of 64 years passed.
Paulucci entered the food industry at age 12, clerking and doing stock work at a small-town grocery store. In 1935, right after high school, he got a gig with a regional produce wholesaler. He then worked as a traveling salesman for a chain of grocery stores, according to the Duluth News Tribune.
In his off-time, Paulucci started growing bean sprouts. He launched Chun King, a line of Chinese canned food featuring these and other Asian vegetables, in 1944.
With Chun King, Paulucci quickly got a reputation for being a fierce, bug-eating businessman. When Paulucci tried to market the line to a reluctant grocery, he convinced the chain’s top buyer to pit his product against his competitors’:
Jeno opened a can of Chun King Chinese vegetables and was horrified to find a dead grasshopper. Before the buyer could see or take a sample, Jeno popped the grasshopper into his mouth with some vegetables and swallowed. The buyer was none the wiser and Food Fair became one of Chun King’s biggest customers.
Some years after selling Chun King to R.J. Reynolds Foods, the News Tribune reports, he would start Jeno’s — the Duluth-based concern that popularized pizza rolls.
Paulucci later sold the corporation to Pillsbury, which re-branded the product as “Totino’s pizza rolls.” He ran his last venture — Michelina’s frozen pastas — until his mid-eighties, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
Paulucci was the son of Italian immigrants to the U.S. His dad worked as an iron minor until an injury disabled him. To make money, the family ran a speakeasy in their Hibbing, Minnesota, home. The young Paulucci would walk along the railroad tracks to find coal to heat their house, the newspaper reports.
Though worth nearly $500 million at the time of his death, Paulucci would still describe himself as a “peddler from the Iron range.”
His impact on American life is immense, as made clear by this video.