A push to preserve a slice of pizza history

Updated: December 30, 2011 - 9:18 am

The original Totino’s Pizza building at 519 Central Ave. isn’t worth saving, city officials decided late last year. But because frozen pizza was invented there, the history must be recorded.

Totino’s history is the focus of a new Facebook page urging “Don’t Demo Totino’s,” which features pizza crust patent documents and founder Rose Totino’s obituary.

“Over the decades, how many thousands of people ate there, or know something about the Totino’s story, or have questions about tearing it down?” said Chris Steller, a journalist and creator of the Facebook page. “There has to be people out there who would at least be interested in a study [of the history].”

Repeated flooding has left the restaurant in bad shape, according to owner Hillcrest Development. Mold, a sagging second floor and a rundown one-story addition make it cost-prohibitive to rehab at an estimated $379 per square foot, according to Hillcrest.

Managing Partner Scott Tankenoff said he expects to announce a new project as soon as next March. Housing is an option, he said.

“Within the next 60–75 days we will have a good idea of what we are going to do and who we are going to work with,” Tankenoff said.

The building can be demolished as soon as the city issues a new building permit for the block. Any new development must incorporate a record of Rose Totino that is submitted to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Totino’s Restaurant operated on Central until 2007, when the owner — Totino’s grandson — decided that the rising cost of operating at the prime location had become too high. Longtime waitresses who had given some patrons their first taste of pizza ordered large quantities of spaghetti sauce for customers to freeze and ration. A new Totino’s restaurant opened in Mounds View, but it closed last summer.

“If you ever had Totino’s frozen pizza, or heard the story, or ate at that restaurant … all those seem to be reasons to preserve the heritage,” Steller said.

The inventor of frozen pizza quit Edison High School at the age of 16. Rose Totino’s initial line of work sent her cleaning houses to help support her family, where she was one of seven children in a Scandinavian neighborhood of Northeast.

Relatives in Pennsylvania first introduced her to pizza, and Rose often baked them for community gatherings at her home. Friends loved the pizzas so much that they encouraged her to open a store.  

Rose and her husband Jim opened the pizzeria in 1951, mortgaging their car and taking out a $1,500 loan to make it happen. Jim initially kept another bakery job while Rose ran the restaurant, but within three weeks, business was booming and Jim quit his job to help full-time.

Jim made the crust and Rose applied the sauce, according to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and they recruited family members to help them sell up to 500 pizzas each weekend.

Take-and-bake pizzas evolved into a concept for frozen pizza. The Totinos started a separate business in 1962 that imported frozen pizza crust from Chicago and added Totino’s sauce.

If you’ve ever compared a frozen pizza to cardboard, you’re not alone — Rose didn’t like it. She called it “the industry-standard cardboard crust,” according to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.

Nevertheless, Totino’s became a big brand name, and the couple sold Totino’s Pizza to Pillsbury in 1975 for $20 million.

“We offered $16 million, saying it was a fair price,” said a negotiator quoted in a city staff report. “[Rose] wanted $20 million, saying it was God’s will. We didn’t know how to handle that, so we gave her $20 million.”

Rose went on to become Pillsbury’s first female senior vice president, working in advertising and public relations for the Totino’s brand. She also worked with Pillsbury food scientists to perfect a better pizza crust, based on a strategy her mother used for cooking pizzas. They decided to fry the crust at the factory, making it more resistant to the process of freezing and thawing and thereby keeping it crisp. The dough product was patented in 1979. Today, Totino’s sells 300 million pizzas a year — about 10 a second.

Rose’s business accomplishments were not limited to Totino’s, however. Her talks with the chairman of Häagen-Dazs ice cream helped pave the way for Pillsbury’s brand acquisition in 1983.

Rose also gave millions to charity. She donated to Sharing and Caring Hands in Downtown Minneapolis, she built a new school in her mother’s Italian hometown and she helped create an adolescent mental health center in Fridley, a town with a Totino’s plant. In 1980, Grace High School in Fridley was renamed Totino-Grace High School in the couple’s honor.

Given all the history, Steller said he would like to see some portion of the original Totino’s building preserved in a new project.

“I guess I’m still hoping that we may yet see more than a plaque there,” he said.

Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal. Reach her at michellebruch82@gmail.com.