Today: How Jeno Paulucci borrowed $2,500 and built a food empire.
Born in 1918 in Aurora, Minnesota to Italian immigrants, Jeno’s dad had come to Minnesota to work in the iron mines, a dangerous place, and he got injured, after that working only sporadically and always for low wages. His mother supported the family with her small grocery store. They were desperately poor and were hard hit by the 1930’s Great Depression. To help his struggling family Jeno started working when he was just 12 years old.
“I can still remember my Mama counting out our money every night on the bedspread,” Jeno told the Christian Science Monitor in 1977. “That put a phobia in me. I guess I ran scared.” * After his high school graduation in 1935, Jeno began working at a wholesale grocery. As a grocer, in the late 1940’s he saw Chinese take-out food become very popular among busy families, regardless of their ethnicity, all of it sold by Chinese restaurants. Jeno saw a huge opportunity.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, on February 8, 1947, Jeno married Lois Trepanier and with time they would have three children. Through her, Jeno saw how busy housewives shopped at grocery stores and he came to believe if he could create quality canned Chinese food, food they would be proud to serve their families, and if he could make it convenient for them to buy in grocery stores instead of Chinese restaurants, they would buy it en mass and he would make a fortune. But there was a big problem. Jeno didn’t have enough money to start such a business.
Yet he refused to let that stop him. He borrowed $2,500 from a friend and set up a firm he named Chun King, a nice sounding Chinese name to English speaking people, and began canning chow mein for retailors. “I seasoned it to my own Italian taste, borrowed space in a vegetable packing house and made up a truckload of it,” Jeno told The New York Times in 1976. “When I’d sold that, I’d come back and make up another truckload until I had a plant in Duluth [154 miles from Minneapolis] and a lot of people working for me.” ** Jeno’s canned chow mein became a big hit and he expanded it into a full line of canned Chun King Chinese food.
Part of what made it such a big hit was the funny television ads created by and starring comedian Stan Freberg. In one of the ads, the announcer claimed “nine out of 10 doctors prefer Chun King,” as the TV camera then showed their faces. Nine of those doctors were Chinese and the last one was Caucasian.* The television audience laughed at the commercials, loved the food and bought it en masse.
Jeno became a wealthy man and in 1966; he sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds for $63 million in cash and briefly headed their foods division. But he quickly grew tired of top management with their Ivy League educations, bragging of their elite family backgrounds and looking down on him for having only a high school diploma and humble family origins and he quit. In 1968 he started Jeno’s, a line of frozen pizzas and other snacks, including something he invented. He took a slice of pizza and combined it with an egg roll and called it a “pizza roll.” It became a huge hit. In 1985, Jeno sold Jeno’s to Pillsbury for $135 million.
Ever the entrepreneur, Jeno kept starting businesses. In 1990 at 72 years of age, he began what became Bellisio Foods, which today is purported to be the 3rd largest frozen entree producer in the U.S. In the early 1990’s, Jeno started Michelina’s, named for his mother, offering readymade pasta and Mexican food. In all, he started over 70 businesses and he remained involved in Michelina’s until shortly before his death on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th, 2011, at the age of 93. He died just four days after Lois, 89, his wife of 64 years, who had also passed away at their home.
Jeno is survived by two daughters and a son and four grandchildren as well as by thousands of current and former employees and by the many millions of his customers in a food industry he helped to revolutionize. He is also survived by the many people his charitable donations assisted through food banks, home heating programs and other services for those in need, for Jeno knew firsthand how hard life could be for them.
Jeno never lost his business perspective either. He had gotten to do what he loved and became a rich man. But he kept the little truck he used to deliver the early batches of his Chinese food as a reminder of his humble roots and of his remarkable journey.
Success Tip of the Week:
Select something you love and like Jeno, put your heart into it. Not only will you find it challenging and fun, but you might even make a little money in the process.
* Quotes taken from his Wall Street Journal obit http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204630904577060512891439658.html ** Quote taken from The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/business/jeno-paulucci-a-pioneer-of-ready-made-ethnic-foods-dies-at-93.html For more information, please see Jeno’s obit in the Duluth Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com/local/134477388.html?page=1&c=y
In the next KazanToday:
A man who had a 95 year career doing what he loved.