Back then, Mr. Paulucci would have been recognized for building Chun King into the first national Chinese-food brand, and for the clever TV spots he hired Stan Freberg to develop. Probably, too, he would have been saluted for inventing Jeno's Pizza Rolls, a frozen snack that today is marketed by Pillsbury Co.
But at 75, Mr. Paulucci has a new success: Michelina's, the Italian entree line that's become the hottest brand in the $4.8 billion frozen dinner/entree category.
Barred for several years from competing in the freezer case, Mr. Paulucci re-entered the fray in 1990. His idea: high-quality Italian food that didn't spend heavily on advertising and thus could keep prices down.
His Luigino's Inc. launched the original Michelina's entrees regionally in 1990, and has built the brand to national distribution, adding family-size portions and a second line of international entrees. Michelina's sales totaled $102.7 million, up 14%, for the year ended April 10, according to Information Resources Inc.
Earlier this year, Mr. Paulucci hired Hal Riney & Partners, Chicago, to create the first TV spots for Michelina's, which Mr. Paulucci narrates.
At one point, he said he'd never advertise, or even issue coupons for Michelina's. Now Mr. Paulucci says, "We've done so well without advertising, we'll do even better."
Barry Krause, managing director of Riney's Heartland office, tells a story that speaks volumes about Mr. Paulucci's character and success. Last year, the agency sent the entrepreneur a letter saying: "We'd kill for an opportunity to work for you." Mr. Paulucci invited them to his Duluth, Minn., headquarters. He loved their ideas, but eventually told them he could find someone cheaper.
In early 1994, Mr. Paulucci called back. "Barry, it's Jeno," he said, recalls Mr. Krause. "I've decided maybe you aren't so expensive after all. Maybe it costs a little more to get good commercials."
Mr. Krause laughs. "That's Jeno."