If there’s one food product you’re guaranteed to find in a dorm room fridge, it’s almost certainly going to have the Totino’s name and logo on it. From the iconic Party Pizzas to the Pizza Rolls that have helped all of us get through a night of studying (or decidedly not studying, no judgment), it’s been a staple in many young (and not-so-young) people’s freezers for years. But the humble origins of this pizza empire are not as widely known as perhaps they should be.
It all started when Rose and Jim Totino opened a pizzeria in Minneapolis in 1951. The pizzeria may have been a small operation at first, but it grew quickly into the frozen pizza empire it is today. Now, Totino’s sells about 300 million of its Party Pizzas every year. If you’ve filled your freezer with a good portion of those 300 million frozen pizzas, you may think you’re pretty well-acquainted with the brand. But the untold truth of Totino’s is more interesting than you may think.
The original Totino’s restaurant was takeout-only at first
These days, most people only think of Totino’s as something you’d find in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store. But many don’t realize that the frozen food behemoth actually started out as a pizzeria with a physical location. At the start, this operation was exceptionally small. So small, in fact, that the first iteration of the Totino’s pizzeria was available to customers as takeout-only.
But the business grew quicker than the owners, Jim and Rose Totino, had originally anticipated. At first, they thought that if they could just sell a few pizzas a week, that would help them cover their rent. It only took them three weeks to realize that they could run the operation full-time. Jim quit his job and making pizza became an all-day, every day operation. Jim and Rose would often work for up to 18 hours a day, a far cry from their apparent expectations. It didn’t take long for them to open up the business as a full-service restaurant serving hundreds of pizzas weekly.
Rose Totino started out making pizzas for family and friends
Like most women of her time, Rose Totino wasn’t exactly focused on becoming a high-powered businesswoman. Before she got married, she worked at a candy factory making 37 cents an hour, but she left her job when she got married to Jim Totino. She and her husband had two daughters, and she became the typical mother and wife: She was a den mother to a troop of Cub Scouts and was known for volunteering at her children’s school as part of the PTA.
Rose never showed up to these PTA meetings empty-handed, though. She soon became known for her pizzas, which she made from a recipe she took from her mother. The pizzas were topped with all of her favorite fresh ingredients she recognized from her childhood: sausage, cheese, fresh vegetables. Word spread, and soon, she was making the pizzas for other events, even taking on catering jobs for acquaintances. The community loved Rose’s pizza, and they finally convinced the couple to open up their very own restaurant.
Totino’s founder and her family struggled to eat when she was a child
Before Rose Totino got married, she was originally Rose Cruciani. While she would become wealthy later in life, Rose didn’t start off so lucky. She was young at the height of the Great Depression, which affected her family’s livelihood like so many others. She and her family were so poor, in fact, that they struggled to find enough food to eat. People ate what they had to during the Great Depression and according to Investor’s Business Daily, Rose Totino would stay after school at the playground to look for orange peels she could eat the pulp from.
This kind of poverty wasn’t uncommon at the time, but it also wasn’t easy for Rose, her family, or others like her. This hardship led to Rose leaving school in 10th grade. Instead of studying, she had to work to help her family make ends meet, and she would clean houses for just $2.50 a week. The hard work and the difficult times no doubt had an impact and spurred her to become the dedicated entrepreneur and ultimately successful businesswoman she came to be.
The original Totino’s restaurant got started with a $1,500 loan
The founders of the brand, Jim and Rose Totino, weren’t exactly from a rich background, so when the time came for them to open their first pizzeria, they knew they were going to need some financial help. They applied for a $1,500 — yes, only $1,500 — loan to help them open their business. But before they got the loan, Rose had to convince her loan officer that the business venture was likely to be successful. This proved to be more difficult than you might expect, as the loan officer didn’t even know what a pizza was.
You can say what you want about the current era, but realize that at the very least, you can order a pizza in even the smallest towns across the country. And for that alone, we should be grateful that we have such modern conveniences. We should feel that gratitude for Rose specifically, as she reportedly had to bake a pizza for her loan officer. Obviously, she did a good job because the couple got the money and were able to open their business, which is the foundation for the Totino’s we know and love today.
Totino’s first frozen products were pasta dishes, not pizza
Totino’s may be known for its frozen pizzas and pizza rolls today, but that’s not how it started out. When the company first started to branch into frozen products, frozen pizza wasn’t really on its radar since it was so difficult to make and get right. Apparently, the first frozen pizzas were not that good — the crusts didn’t crisp correctly and were often either crumbly or soggy, and the toppings didn’t have much flavor.
Perhaps that’s why Totino’s started off making frozen pasta dinners instead. Jim and Rose Totino created Totino’s Fine Foods in 1962, investing $50,000 of the money they’d earned at their restaurant into the new business venture. But there were a lot of problems with the idea’s execution. Not only were the ingredients expensive, but it took a long time to put the frozen meals together. At the end of the year, the venture had clearly been a flop, and the couple was considering whether bankruptcy was the best option. Luckily, they didn’t file for bankruptcy but instead started looking for ways to make frozen pizza. Totino’s may not be looking to jump back into the frozen pasta market, but their Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon Party Pizza definitely makes up for any past pasta mistakes.
The founders of Totino’s sold the company to Pillsbury
By the mid-70s, Totino’s was gaining more and more popularity around the country, and the couple who had started the business was making good money. However, owner Rose Totino was worried about her husband’s health, which was failing by that time. She also realized that they had "had no sons to take over the business," even though Rose had become a powerhouse of her own accord. Regardless, the couple knew they needed to make a new move. So, in 1975, they sold the company to Pillsbury for $22 million.
That wasn’t the end of Rose’s career, though: She still had work to do. Rose became Pillsbury’s first female corporate vice president, successfully reaching the top tier of her organization when so many American women were struggling to climb the corporate ladder. It was with Pillsbury that Rose worked with scientists to improve the way frozen pizza was made and distributed, most notably inventing Totino’s signature Crisp Crust technology.
Totino’s came out with an innovative "Crisp Crust" technology
Frozen pizza was just coming onto the scene when owners Rose and Jim Totino were getting into the frozen food business. The original frozen pizza was patented by Joseph Bucci, but several different companies started pushing their frozen pizza products all around the same time. It didn’t take long for Totino’s to enter the business — it started its mass production of frozen pizzas in 1962. It quickly became the most successful name on the market, becoming the top-selling frozen pizza company by the 1970s.
This success was largely due to the pizza’s signature "Crisp Crust" technology that was developed and patented in the late 1970s. In an attempt to avoid the soggy and unpalatable frozen pizza crusts from the past, Totino’s came up with a crust that resisted getting waterlogged after being frozen. This same technology is still used to make Totino’s Party Pizza crusts today. Consumers clearly embraced this long-awaited frozen pizza taste and texture, as Totino’s became the first nationally distributed frozen pizza brand in 1978.
The original Totino’s restaurant closed in 2011
When the original Totino’s Pizzeria opened in 1951, nobody would have guessed it would have the staying power it did. It quickly ramped up production in response to enthusiasm from the neighborhood where it began in Minneapolis. Not long after its opening, Rose and Jim Totino sought to expand their empire into the frozen food business, but they didn’t close their restaurant as they gained more widespread success.
In 1987, the restaurant changed hands from Rose Totino to her grandson, Steve Elwell. He ran the business at the original location until 2007, when he sold the building and moved the restaurant to a different part of the city. This was the beginning of the end for the well-loved pizzeria. Fans who’d eaten at the original restaurant reportedly weren’t fond of the crowd at the new location. In 2011, the restaurant shut its doors entirely, much to the chagrin of the local community that had grown up on the restaurant’s beloved pizza. Regardless, the pizzeria managed to thrive for 60 years, and its legacy is certainly living on today.
Rose Totino was the first woman inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame
Women weren’t exactly recognized for their business acumen or top-notch entrepreneurial instincts back in Rose Totino’s day, and this makes her climb to the top of Pillsbury all the more noteworthy. While becoming the first female vice president of the company is certainly a career highpoint, she also reached another milestone — being the first woman inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame. Yes, this is actually a real thing, and if anyone deserves to be in it, it’s Rose Totino.
That’s not the only honor Rose Totino was granted with, though. In 2008, she was posthumously inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. She was celebrated as "the uncontested queen of frozen pizza." Not exactly a title we’d mind holding. And because of Rose and Jim Totino’s generosity over the years, a high school even bears their last name.
The pizza rolls weren’t invented by the Totinos
The Party Pizzas are certainly some of the best sellers in the Totino’s line. But perhaps even more iconic than the frozen pizzas are the pizza rolls. While the Totinos are widely known for creating this vast frozen food empire, they didn’t actually come up with their signature pizza rolls. Instead, a man named Jeno Paulucci is responsible for the invention that has graced the microwaves of after-schoolers and stoners alike.
He sold the popular pizza-like snack for years under the name "Jeno’s Pizza Rolls." Then, in 1985, he decided to sell his company to Pillsbury, which had also purchased the Totino’s line. The snack was incorporated into the pizza brand’s name and lived on as the incredibly successful product it is today. Don’t think this guy didn’t make a splash in the industry apart from this single invention, though. He was actually widely known as "the king of frozen foods" before his death at the age of 93 in 2011.
Totino’s sells one million Party Pizzas every day on average
At just about any grocery store you walk into in the United States, you’re going to find a bag of pizza rolls or a stack of Party Pizzas. Totino’s ubiquity speaks volumes about its widespread success and its pizzas and pizza-inspired snacks continue to be popular frozen food items with consumers.
This is evidenced by the fact that Totino’s now sells about one million Party Pizzas every day on average. Plus, their pizza rolls are America’s number-one-selling hot snack. And there are signs that the company is doing even better in 2020 than ever before, with frozen pizza sales soaring due to the coronavirus pandemic. People want to have frozen food options available in their freezer for when they don’t want to cook, and Totino’s knows how to deliver a tasty meal for when you just can’t bother with chopping a vegetable. In light of these trends, it doesn’t look like Totino’s success is going anywhere anytime soon.
It takes 78 pizza rolls to make a full pizza
Ever wondered how many pizzas you’re eating when you finish a plate of Totino’s Pizza Rolls? That really depends on how you want to measure it. Comparing calories? In that case, it would take you about 18.8 pepperoni pizza rolls to equal the number of calories you’d get from one Party Pizza. But let’s be real: If you’re eating that many pizza rolls, you’re probably not too concerned about the calories.
Thrillist tried an experiment that can offer us a better comparison between the two. They wondered how much pizza roll filling it would take to cover a 12-inch pizza crust. This must have taken a lot of time (and serious patience for third-degree finger burns from the piping-hot filling) because once you actually squish the insides out of their protective casing, there’s not much there. That’s why it took a full 78 pizza rolls to cover the entire pizza crust. The final result doesn’t look too appetizing, though, so you can take it from them and keep your own pizza rolls intact.
You can make a version of the pizza rolls at home
Let’s be honest here. We love Totino’s Pizza Rolls. How could you not? They’re little pockets of cheesy, meaty goodness that squish sauce out of their seams. At the same time, we’re aware they’re not particularly good for you. That’s okay from time to time, but if you have a serious pizza roll addiction, you might be on the lookout for ways to enjoy your favorite snack in a healthier way.
Maybe that’s why so many recipe writers have tried to find ways to make pizza rolls at home. Because you have more control over the ingredients, you can make sure they’re as high-quality as possible. While they might not have the Totino’s seal of approval, at least you know you’re getting your inspiration from the very best in the business. These recipes might make a pizza roll that’s slightly different than the classic, but one thing is for sure: The filling is still going to be piping hot, so be careful when you bite into them.
Home cooks are always trying to elevate the classic snack
Die-hard Totino’s fan or not, you can’t pretend that pizza rolls are a sophisticated food. They’re not what you would bust out at a party to impress your guests unless your guests were under 16-years-old (or had already been through several bottles of wine). But if you’re like many of us, you still wish you would find them at the back of the hors d’oeuvres table at your work friend’s wedding.
That’s why we should all be grateful for the creative souls who are coming up with ways to elevate the humble pizza roll. These ideas involve taking the classic snack as a base and then adding to them to create mouthwatering snacks you’d be proud to show off at any get-together. Pizza roll nachos are seriously the stuff of dreams — if you’re the kind of person who dreams of the most magical junk-food mashups possible. And we wouldn’t mind digging into some pizza roll kabobs at our next cookout either.