Born Rosenella Cruciani, Rose Totino was the uncontested queen of frozen pizza. She was an innovator and entrepreneur who helped to introduce frozen pizza to America and later improved the product. She will be inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame at an awards banquet to be held at Jackpot Junction, near Redwood Falls, on Friday evening, June 13.
Her pizza, like Rose, was born and developed in Minnesota. Rose was the fourth among seven in an Italian family in ethnic “Nordeast” Minneapolis. Her mother made a small Italian pie made with sausage, cheese and a variety of sauces. Word spread that Rose was also skillful at making this small Italian pie, which we now call pizza.
She dropped out of school at age 16 and helped support her family by cleaning houses for $2.50 a week. At age 19 she married Jim Totino, a baker. They dreamed of opening a restaurant, but needed $1,500. Demonstrating the ingenuity that would make her famous, Rose baked a pizza and took it to a banker. Impressed, he loaned the couple the money they needed. In 1951, they opened one of the first pizzerias in Minneapolis, and began selling pre-baked and ready-to-eat pizza as a take-out business. The recipe for the dough and topping were original.
The small pizza shop was successful from the first day. Rose and Jim originally intended to offer take-out pizzas only. But customers wanted a place to sit and eat the pizza on site, so the Totinos added tables and chairs and opened a restaurant, Totino’s Italian Kitchen. Jim baked the crusts and Rose applied the sauce, making as many as 400 to 500 pizzas a day.
A decade later, in 1962, they started a separate business, Totino’s Finer Foods, selling frozen pizza that could be baked at home. With a loan from the Small Business Administration, they bought an abandoned factory in St. Louis Park and began mass producing frozen pizza, buying frozen crusts from Chicago and adding the special topping in Minnesota. Rose insisted the crusts tasted like cardboard and called it “the industry standard cardboard crust.” Nevertheless, Totino’s became the first big name in the frozen pizza industry and a national phenomenon.
Not satisfied with the crust, Rose continuously strived to make it better. She experimented with processes for freezing her pizza products, but found it difficult to freeze the crust so that it would be crisp after home baking.
The business grew so much that in 1971 they built a $2.5 million dollar plant in Fridley. Despite two plant expansions, Totino’s Finer Foods could not meet the demand for frozen pizza. In their 60s and with Jim’s health failing, the Totinos analyzed the needs of their company, weighed the options, and sold to the Minneapolis based-Pillsbury Company for $22 million. Rose became Pillsbury’s first female corporate vice president.
Rose then worked with Pillsbury scientists to perfect the crust. She and her colleagues devised a way to prepare pizza crust that is fried, rather than pre-baked. The crust was fried at the factory, making it more resistant to the ravages of freezing and thawing. The concept of frying the crust came from the pizzas Rose’s mother had made at home. The result was a 1979 patent for a dough product specially designed for freezing and subsequent baking - a delamination resistant fried dough crust.
Jim died in 1981. Rose continued as a valued advisor and ambassador for Totino’s products and helped Pillsbury abandon the cardboard crusts and introduce Totino’s “Crisp Crust” Pizza to the nation.
The Totino’s brand became part of General Mills with the company’s acquisition of Pillsbury in 2001. Over 300 million Totino’s pizzas are sold each year - more than 10 every second.
Over the years, the Totinos gave millions of dollars to charities and educational institutions in Minnesota. Because of their generosity, a high school now bears the Totino name. Grace High School in Fridley - named for a Catholic bishop - became Totino-Grace in 1980. The Totinos helped to finance a fine-arts center at Northwestern College in Roseville. They donated money to the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter in Minneapolis, to a mental health center for adolescents in Fridley, and to others. They also paid for church repairs and a new school in the impoverished village of Scopoli, Italy, the birthplace of Rose’s mother.
Rose died on June 21, 1994, at age 79. Her selection as only the third woman to be inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame recognizes her lifelong research, product improvement and extraordinary entrepreneurship.
After her induction at Friday’s banquet, a photograph and plaque commemorating Rose Totino’s achievements will be displayed in the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame Exhibit at the Redwood Area Community Center, joining 59 other distinguished inventors inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame since its founding in 1976. The website minnesotainventors.org contains information regarding the previous inductees. Mille Lacs County Times