Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Bonnie Totino Brenny: My Mother's Legacy

Pizza entrepreneur Rose Totino and her husband, Jim, built a successful business from humble beginnings in their small Italian take-out restaurant, which opened in Minneapolis in 1951. Rose pioneered the concept of ready-to-bake frozen pizzas, now an American staple. After selling the brand to Pillsbury in 1975, she served as Pillsbury's first woman vice president. Rose Totino passed away in 1994, but her legacy lives on. When she was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in June 2008, Rose's daughter, Bonnie Totino Brenny, gave the following tribute to her mother, reprinted here with permission.

When I learned my mother was selected for induction into the Minnesota Inventor's Hall of Fame, I stepped back in time. I thought about the many challenges my parents faced over the years. The story began in 1951 when they opened a small take-out pizzeria in Minneapolis which grew into a booming family restaurant. Our parents would be so proud! We remain grateful! our parents' endeavor which thrived for 57 years now has been passed down to our 3rd and 4th generations.

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."

Another story she loved to tell: One day a gentleman from the bank called and asked my mother if he could review a cash flow statement. Without hesitation, my mother replied, "I can assure you, sir, I don't see any cash flowing around here."

My sister, Joanne, spent much of her youth working at the restaurant. She was allowed to wait on customers because she was much older. Of course, I was confined to the kitchen. I vividly remember the day my dad put me to work. I was about 5 years old. He grabbed an old, wooden Coca-Cola crate and turned it upside down so my little hands could reach the tabletop. Together we worked on a long, wooden table. He rolled out the dough and he taught me how to pan pizza - to stretch the dough to fit all four corners perfectly. Then my mother topped the pizzas to perfection - often making 400 to 500 a day!

As business grew, pizza was introduced to the Minneapolis - St. Paul area. By the early '60s, customers were encouraging my parents to produce a pizza that would be available in grocery stores. Back then, how did you begin mass producing a quality frozen pizza? So my dad, who was formally educated through the 8th grade, put his inventive mind to work. One day he came to work with an old phonograph turntable. In the place of an arm was a plastic tube attached to a bucket of sauce. Somehow he attached a foot pedal allowing the turntable to stop and go. As the turntable revolved, sauce automatically topped the crust. His invention was successful! Totino's frozen pizza was introduced nationally; that was the "Nobody tops a pizza like Totino's" era.

In 1975 Pillsbury acquired Totino's. My dad decided to continue managing the restaurant. However, my mother hopped on board with Pillsbury. As a perfectionist, she always strived to improve the pizza, especially a product with her name on it. She was dissatisfied with a "cardboard" tasting crust. Her hope was to someday create a pizza much like her mother made - a crisp crust that was fried. With time and Pillsbury's research and development, her vision became a reality! The crisp crust patent was granted in 1979. I remember my mother traveling from city to city introducing crisp crust nationally on TV and radio. Even though she was petite and stood only 4 feet tall, she would hold her hands high and often repeat her own words on the new pizza carton, "Be the best and be generous!" The development of crisp crust was truly her best effort at creating a crust much like the pizza crust she remembered as a child. She always made sure the topping was generous! Eventually crisp crust revolutionized pizza in America. Totino's became a frozen food giant!

In 2001 Pillsbury was acquired by General Mills. The Totino's marketing team continues to do a remarkable job even today. ...I know how much my mother valued team work and appreciated each individual team player. If she were here today, I know she would salute the team with a glass of her favorite red wine. For Mom one thank you was never adequate!

Our family is extremely grateful to Professor Fred Amram from the University of Minnesota for kindly nominating my mother for [the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame].

Our family remains grateful this evening for the honor you have so graciously bestowed on our mother. We are amazed! We stand in awe! It has been 14 years, almost to the day, since our mother left us. Yet her legacy of hard work, determination, innovation, and entrepreneurship still lives on!