I went to a grocery store recently and was fascinated by the frozen pizza section. It occupied three-quarters of the waist-level freezer space. Breakfast pizzas, dessert pizzas, mini pizzas, pizza rolls, ultra-thin crusts, self-rising crusts, cauliflower crusts, mega cheese, soy cheese, four meats, no meat. I lost count of the different varieties.
Spending on food eaten at home has risen from about 7 percent of consumer spending to 8.5 percent from 2019 to the end of 2020. That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s an increase of over $100 billion in one year, and Minnesota-based companies such as General Mills, Hormel, and Schwan’s all benefited from American households buying canned, boxed, and frozen food rather than eating out. Frozen pizza has been a significant component of this growth.
One other item in the pizza section caught my attention. In a small corner of one freezer was the Minnesota pizza that started it all: Totino’s.
From frozen fish to TV dinners
Americans pioneered frozen foods starting with a process for flash freezing fish in the mid-1920s. Various inventors and companies generalized the process during the 1930s to all types of meat, fruit, vegetables, and even prepared foods.
However, two other factors were needed before frozen food became an American phenomenon. First, retail groceries needed supply chains to bring frozen foods from producers to local warehouses to individual stores. Key elements in this chain that became feasible in the 1940s and 1950s were refrigerated trucks and grocery freezers that ran on electricity rather than ice.
Second, there needed to be a critical mass of home freezers capable of storing frozen foods. This happened during the great explosion of American consumer spending during the 1950s. Once the supply chain and home freezers were in place, frozen foods – from fruits to vegetables to meats – started appearing in grocery stores and, in 1953, Swanson’s put it all together in the TV Dinner.
The Totino’s story
Jim and Rose Totino opened Totino’s Italian Kitchen on February 7, 1951, near the intersection of Central Avenue and East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Each of them had left school at 16 to support their families, with Rose cleaning houses and working in a candy factory and Jim employed as a baker. They had met at the Viking Dance Hall in Minneapolis and married in 1934.
The idea for a restaurant originated in the pizza, spaghetti, and lasagna that Rose regularly brought to PTA, Cub Scout, and church meetings. According to Carol Pine and Susan Mundale in Self-Made: The Stories of 12 Minnesota Entrepreneurs, Rose’s friends “urged the Totinos to open a shop where they could come and buy pizza whenever they wanted it.” The Totinos’ original plan was to sell only takeout food, but according to Rose, “the boys from the service station would come over and say, ‘Give me a fork. I’ll eat here standing up.’ So we put in a card table for the boys and at noon there would be a mad scramble for the card table (quote from Enterprising Minnesotans, p. 131).” Thus, the take-out place evolved into a full-service restaurant.
Running the restaurant was hard work. Their daughter Bonnie Totino Brenny recalls:
The early days at the restaurant were long and exhausting days for my parents, but they always pressed on no matter what. I recall my mother’s words: “We were so tired at night that we just stuffed the money into a brown paper bag. The next morning I paid the milkman, the bread man, and the meat man and others. Then I looked into the bag and was surprised to see money left.
The hard work paid off during the 1950s, with the Totinos buying the building, making improvements to the restaurant, and along the way putting money in the bank. Rose and Jim discussed retiring, but Rose, especially, was not ready to stop.
At the same time across the U.S. frozen pizzas started appearing in various cities. Though they were produced and sold regionally by a variety of vendors, the pizzas were all quite similar: what Rose called a “cardboard” crust with boring tomato sauce and second-rate toppings.
The Totinos thought they could do better in the local market, so they put together a three-part plan to enter the frozen pizza business. They would start by producing frozen pasta entrees, then use the proceeds to build a bakery to produce their own pizza crusts, and finally start producing their own frozen pizzas.
So, in 1961, they purchased a plant in St. Louis Park, put together an $80,000 advertising budget, started production in January 1962, and by summer had lost about $150,000.
Salvation came in the fall of 1962 when Jim attended a frozen foods convention in Dallas. There he saw frozen pizza crusts that he believed would work for their product. When he returned home, he convinced Rose that they could skip building the crust bakery, use the frozen crusts and differentiate their pizza with a superior tomato sauce along with higher quality meats and cheeses. Armed with a Small Business Administration loan, along with mortgaging everything they owned, they started producing frozen pizzas.
By mid-1963, their business was a success. In 1970 they built a new plant in Fridley with triple the capacity of the original factory, and they brought in professionals for finances, marketing and quality control who came to be called Rose’s Boys. The Totinos moved beyond the upper Midwest and, working with local food brokers, sold pizzas in cities where Rose believed the existing brands were inferior to theirs.
All this expansion took money but to continue that growth would require even more cash. Rose and Jim faced a decision: raise the money to build more plants or sell the company to an existing firm that could finance future expansion. Jim’s health had been failing and so he and Rose went looking for a buyer. They received multiple bids and in November 1975 settled on Pillsbury, selling the company for $22 million in Pillsbury stock and a job for Rose as a corporate vice president.
One of the first things Rose did after securing a bigger future with Pillsbury was to develop her own crust. By 1977 Totino’s introduced the “Crisp Crust” that has been the company’s signature ever since. Pillsbury, and Rose, took Totino’s nationwide and by the late 1970s, Totino’s was the leading brand of frozen pizza. Today, Totino’s is owned by General Mills, which gained the brand when they purchased Pillsbury in 2001.
Eating in, eating out?
No one knows for sure how consumers will react to the end of the pandemic. Will they return to restaurants at the same rate as before? Will they continue cooking for themselves, using their own raw ingredients and packaged foods?
Whatever happens, take a closer look at the pizza section in your local supermarket and remember the Minnesota company that started it all.
I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this column.