At 88, frozen food king still has plans cooking

Jeno Paulucci
Jeno Paulucci, 88, has few regrets. Except selling off the snack that bears his name. “I should’ve kept the pizza roll. It’s something that’ll damn near live forever,” he said.Joanne Carole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jeno Paulucci may not know much, but he does know food.

He sees the world through a microwave oven — through ravioli, chicken marsala and pot roasts ready in moments, and through stomachs run empty by busy schedules.

You may never have heard of him, but he’s probably been feeding you and your family for decades.

Even at 88 years old, the frozen food mogul whose current lines include Michelina’s and Budget Gourmet is still peddling products all over the world. He recently began shipping to Russia, and is poised soon to hit the Chinese market. Paulucci is also starting a new line of appetizers called Bundinos, which are frozen buns filled with turkey or pizza ingredients.

“I try to keep ahead of the timing,” Paulucci said. “Wherever there’s a microwave, I believe we should have our product.”

It began with Chun King lo mein in the 1940s and mushroomed into pizza and pasta lines. He is perhaps best known for his namesake Jeno’s pizza rolls, though he sold that company to General Mills in 1985 for some $150 million and a big load of regret.

“I should’ve kept the pizza roll. It’s something that’ll damn near live forever,” he said.

Mike Harper, former chairman and CEO of RJR-Nabisco and head of ConAgra Foods, remembered inviting Paulucci to talk with staff in the mid-1990s.

“I wanted to try to generate an entrepreneurial climate, and I wasn’t sure these people in New York knew what an entrepreneur was. Jeno was my definition of an entrepreneur,” Harper said. “He’s rough, he’s plainspoken and a very direct guy. I happen to like that kind of guy. I like doing business with them.”

Born three decades before anyone had a home microwave, Paulucci has made a fortune producing meals for the now-ubiquitous appliance. He still works at least five days a week micromanaging a lucrative Michelina’s Inc. food empire and splitting time between his native Minnesota and modest “international” headquarters in Florida. Besides the food lines, Paulucci also has a chain of small banks (Republic) and numerous Florida real estate holdings.

Paulucci grew up on the frigid Iron Range, the son of an immigrant miner. He was constantly teased for his heritage, prompting him in 1975 to found the Italian American Foundation — “so that if you made a few dollars somebody wouldn’t ask what syndicate you belonged to.” He sprinkles in more than a few mild profanities when he talks.

“I used to get into fights. I used to just beat up any ... kid I could, as long as I got the first hit into them,” he said. “I guess that’s carried through in my life, and that’s why I am so litigious. It isn’t that I want to prove myself as much as it is I want to get even with the other guy. At age 88 you’d think I’d get over the ... thing.

Paulucci started his Chun King business in 1944 with a $2,500 loan, and sold it to R.J. Reynolds less than two decades later for $63 million. He says he has started around 70 companies, some more successful than others. Paulucci tries to build them up, sell them off and then start building another.

Though still designing new entrees, Paulucci hasn’t been to the grocery store in a decade. He says he has never touched a computer, and prefers that employees use e-mail only if there’s no other option.

Paulucci is 5-foot-4 and rough-spoken, with a sandpaper voice. Sometimes soft Minnesotan vowels seep through, on “oh” or “go.”

He sure holds a grudge. He started a pie-filling company in 1950 specifically to drive a former business partner bankrupt. (He lost money selling at drastically cut rates, but forced his competitor to do the same until he went out of business)

For a businessman, Paulucci also has unconventional ideas about labor. He’s stridently pro-union, and thinks the country is long overdue for a minimum-wage increase. He has made a practice of hiring convicted criminals and the disabled.

He believes businesses should give up to 5 percent of pretax projects for community projects, and those who make more than $100,000 a year should pay at least an extra percent or two in taxes.

For all his success, there are a few calls Paulucci would like back. He sold off shares in surgical staple and packing wrap companies because he didn’t think they’d take off or quibbled with owners. He started several restaurants that failed for various reasons (bad locations, bad managers or his own stubbornness).

He details many of his experiences in a recent book called “Jeno: The Power of the Peddler.”

As a young barker at a food market, Paulucci persuaded customers to buy discolored bananas by calling them “Argentine” and bumping up the price. Decades later, he used an incubator to heat up a Chinese food competitor’s products so they would be rancid on sales calls. He was once forced to pop a dead grasshopper from one of his freshly opened cans quickly into his mouth before the client could see it.

Paulucci still lives much the same as he used to. He works in the same nondescript but cozy office, sampling products and hassling vendors who make his life difficult. He starts work at 8 a.m. now, instead of 6 a.m., because he and longtime wife Lois take a little longer to help each other get ready.

He is also now legally blind, though he doesn’t think about it unless somebody brings it up. Staff members read things to him, and he’s got a well-lit office and machine that enlarges print.

He’s not ready to retire, not with everything going on. He intends to sell Michelina’s this year and start something else, and in the meantime presides over the entry into China. The first shipments will go in January or February, and the company is still trying to get a few more wholesalers.

“Other than being with my wife Lois I’ve got nothing to do,” he said. “Relaxing makes me nervous. I used to play golf once in a while, but then I thought, ’What the hell, chasing a little white ball around is crazy.’

“I just don’t have anything else to do. I’ve got some friends, yes, but I love working. To me that’s it.”