who founded the Chun King company on $2,500 and a pail of bean sprouts and later sold it for $63 million, turned down several ambassadorships and cabinet posts, owns Jeno's, the largest snack-food corporation in the world, goes fishing regularly with Vice President Mondale and, in general, waits for no man - still wants for mamma.
He's the kind of guy who's too frenetic to stop for lunch, but when mamma phones, hold everything.
This time 80-year-old mother Michelina is calling her 60-year-old son from the Duluth, Minn., test kitchens of Jeno's, Inc., a $100-million-a-year purveyor of frozen pizzas and other Italian foods. The company is about to market a line of frozen ravioli, and mamma isn't happy with the way the cheese filling is going into the little pastry envelopes. She's also asking her son a perennial question: "Why don't you start selling meatballs? I taught you how to make them."
Beyond the sausage and lasagne, the garlic bread and pizza, Jeno Paulucci virtually has become Mr. Italian in America. he is the man who visited Jim Carter after the Democratic convention and taught him that you don't pronounce it "Eye-talian." He is the man cited in an honorary doctor of laws degree for having "imposed yourself on the world."
He is the man who's convinced - after two Italian-American monthly magazines failed - that he can start a successful magazine aimed at the same audience. He's the one who founded the Italian American Foundation, which hosts a dinner for 2,000 at the Washington Hilton tonight.
In 1965 Paulucci won the National Horatio Alger Award, and his is admittedly a meatballs-to-megabucks story. He grew up in Heartland America - Hibbing, Minn., where Bob Dylan's mother lived across the street. His father was an iron-ore miner; his mother ran a small grocery store; the family lived in a $5-a-moth coldwater flat. When Paulucci was old enough to go off to school, he was also old enough to start work - as a vegetable pedler.
He was, he says, a typical smart-alec Italian kid, but with a sense of imagination. When several cases of bananas began to ripen prematurely, Paulucci hawked all of them quickly at a higher price, crying out to crowds of passers-by: "Get your Argentine bananas now; you may never have another chances."
From bananas, Paulucci moved up the fruit leader to become a traveling garlic salesman. During one of his herbal forays he had an encounter with bean sprouts.
"They fascinated me," he says in retrospect. "It gets very cold in Minnesota, and you could grow these things inside all year long." He borrowed $2,500 from Antonio Papa, a friend, and started raising bean sprouts before hippies were even born.
On thing Paulucci quickly discovered was that bean sprouts have a relatively short shell life, unlike garlic, which will last for months. So he started packing his sprouts, along with other veggies, into the cans of Chinese food, all of it gussied up with maternal spices.
"Most of the Chinese food being sold was really bland stuff," he says. "Mamma added some spices and we had something good."
"Two months later he wrote me a letter and said he was opening a hotel and he needed his money back and . . . I probably would have done the same thing."
The rest is history. Chun King became a huge business, eventually bought by the R.J. Reynolds Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"Where else but in America," says Paulucci, "could an Italian-American by the name of Luigino (he changd his name legally to Jeno) Francesco Paulucci go into the Chinese food business in the Scandinavian country of Minnesota, can chop suey practicaly in the shadows of the iron-ore dumps, sell that company for millions to a tobacco company - and I don't even smoke - and then go in the pizza business, where Mamma said I should have been in the first place, and with the help of a dedicated core of people make that business number one in the world in seven years?"
Paulucci divied up $2 million in tax-free gifts to his former employes after the sale of Chun King. In fact, the man seems as much a populist as Andrew Jackson, a sort of munificent character who just stepped out of a Frank Capra movie. He's the author of a little yellow book of "Jeno's Credos" like:
The mek have to
Inherit the Earth
They sure don't
Know how to market it
I can't give you the forula for success
But I can give you the formula success
But I can give you the formula for failure
Try to please everyone
"Pleasing everyone has never interested me," Paulucci says. "I can't tell you how many times people have tried to get me into policies. I don't like constituencies, unless I pick and choose my own."
Several factors contributed to his evolution into a spokesman. He was undeniably Italian and undeniably middle American. he was a mid-western poor boy gone multimillionaire in ethnic food businesses who encouraged union representation at his factories. And his family's own strong ethnic background prepared him to champion the Italian.
"Somebody had to do it," he says, almost nonchalantly, the way he tends to do most things. Paulucci got John Volpe to become president of the foundation, and says he convinced Carter to attend the group's first dinner, persuaded Italian Premier Giulio Andreotti to visit President Carter and paved the way for a major IMF loan to Italy.
Paulucci's largesse can extend beyond ethnic barriers. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby for regulations to guarantee and economic future for Minnesota's mine workers while holding the mining companines responsible for an ecologically balanced future. He has helped develop mass-transit programs, and donated buildings to several non-profit organizations in the state.
But for all his efforts, Paulucci is right - he can't please everyone.
There is the matter of the church in his mother's home town of Belisio Solfare (the name means "beautiful sulfur"), a mining village in Northern Italy that Paulucci visits regularly. When the local priests approached him for renewal funds, he responded generously, including $20,000 for a new set of bells.
"They're the biggest damn things in the world," he says. "The people there are still mad at me. It's impossible to sleep very late in the morning."