Jeno Paulucci, 93, the so-called “king of frozen foods” whose ready-made empire filled American freezers with products such as pie-filling, pizza and egg foo young, died Nov. 24 at his home in Duluth, Minn.
His death was confirmed by a family spokesperson, Jill Molitor. No cause of death was reported.
The son of poor Italian immigrants, Mr. Paulucci became a millionaire through a series of ethnic food businesses. In the 1950s, he was one of the first to offer packaged Chinese dishes in grocery stores with his company Chun King, which specialized in chop suey, chow mein and egg rolls.
He later founded an Italian frozen-food company, Jeno’s, and sold lasagna, garlic bread and an innovation all his own: the pizza roll.
Using a machine he invented to prepare Chun King egg rolls, Mr. Paulucci replaced the innards of the Chinese hors d’oeuvre with traditional pizza toppings. He sold Jeno’s to Pillsbury in the late 1980s for more than $140 million, and his bite-size pizza snacks are now sold as Totino’s Pizza Rolls.
Mr. Paulucci began his career in the food business at 16 as a fruit vendor. One day, the refrigerator unit on a store malfunctioned, and 18 crates of bananas were exposed to ammonia fumes.
The store owner considered the fruit ruined —otherwise harmless, the skins of the bananas had changed color — but Mr. Paulucci saw differently. He raised the price of the fruit and sold them on the street as rare Argentine bananas.
“Get your Argentine bananas,” he shouted to passersby, before adding in near-rhyme, “You may not have another chances.”
He sold out in three hours.
A few years later, while working as a traveling garlic salesman, he came across a Japanese community in Minneapolis that grew bean sprouts indoors in hydroponic gardens.
Mr. Paulucci became fascinated with the legumes and the fact that they could grow year-round despite Minnesota’s harsh winters. He began cultivating his own stock and selling the sprouts to restaurants as a salad ingredient.
Passing through towns hawking his bean sprouts, Mr. Paulucci saw many Chinese food restaurants but noticed that most grocery stores didn’t offer any prepared Asian dishes.
“The food industry was missing the boat, allowing restaurants to handle all the take-home business,” he once said.
He came up with his own chop suey recipe by canning his sprouts and adding bits of celery, pimentos and an Italian herb mixture suggested by his mother.
In 1947, he was loaned $2,500 from a friend and started Chun King. Beginning in 1960, he hired radio comedian Stan Freberg to host the “Chun King Chow Mein Hour” in honor of the Chinese New Year.
Freberg interspersed his broadcast with commercials featuring the “Chun Kingston Trio” and “folk songs” such as “Oh, Handle Me Down My Walking Chow Mein.”
Some of Mr. Paulucci’s critics claimed he was capitalizing on Chinese heritage through his outsized promotion of the holiday. His marketing blitz included television spots and planes flying streamers. In one stunt, Mr. Paulucci hauled Freberg down La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles in a rickshaw.
“It got so big,” Mr. Paulucci told The Washington Post in 1986, “this Chinese paper in New York wrote an editorial that said ‘What are we doing to let this Italian run away with Chinese New Year’s?’ ”
He sold Chun King to the J.R. Reynolds tobacco company in 1966 for $63 million. He started Jeno’s soon after.
Mr. Paulucci was a founder of the National Italian American Foundation. At a ceremonial dinner for the group in 1976, President Gerald Ford called Mr. Paulucci’s rise to prominence a symbol of the “magic of America.”
“His first great success was a company called Chun King,” Ford said during his dinner address. “What could be more American than a business built on a good Italian recipe for chop suey?”
Luigino Francesco Paulucci was born July 7, 1918, in Aurora, Minn. His father, Ettore, was an iron miner and his mother, Michelina, ran a grocery out of the family home. During Prohibition, his mother sold bootlegged wine and also ran an illegal bar. After selling Jeno’s to Pillsbury, Mr. Paulucci founded Luigino’s and started the Michelina’s brand of Italian foods, naming the line after his mother.
His wife of 64 years, the former Lois Mae Trepanier, preceded him in death by four days. Survivors include three children and four grandchildren.
Mr. Paulucci donated millions of dollars to charities, public projects and other philanthropic efforts. He often visited his ancestor’s northern Italian village, where he paid for new bells to be installed in a church.
“They’re the biggest damn things in the world,” Mr. Paulucci told The Post in 1978. “The people there are still mad at me. It’s impossible to sleep very late in the morning.”