The 100-year rise of Rotella’s Italian Bakery

Louis Rotella Jr. had a bold vision for his family’s Omaha-based bakery – the one his immigrant grandparents founded a century ago and his father guided for three decades. Louis Jr. was going to take it national.

“My father (Louis Jr.) is always striving to become better, to become more efficient, to grow the business. One of the things I learned from him is to never be stagnant,” said Louis Rotella III, Louis Jr.’s son and Rotella’s Chief Operating Officer.

In 1978, two years into helming day-to-day operations, Louis Jr. made his first move, expanding Rotella’s Italian Bakery into the Lincoln market. Des Moines, IA, was next. Now, more than 40 years after first stretching its reach, Rotella’s is one of the nation’s premier high-speed, wholesale bakeries with distribution across the country – all of that growth driven by Rotella’s third generation president and CEO.

“My father has always been focused on making his father (Louis Sr.) proud; proud that he raised a hard-working son capable of achieving big dreams,” said Louis III.

The Rotella’s story is rooted in family – generation after generation. Italian immigrants Alessandro and Maria Rotella opened the original Rotella Bakery in 1921. They baked bread in a wood-fired oven and delivered it to local restaurants and grocery stores in a horse-drawn wagon. 

In 1947, son and World War II veteran Louis Sr. began running the bakery for his aging father. Automation became a priority.

“My father (Louis Jr.) really learned about automation from his father (Louis Sr.). Automation was key to growing our business,” Louis III said.

Louis Jr. described his late father as a “really good teacher,” honest with an incredible work ethic. 

“We got along so well, me and my dad,” Louis Jr. said. “Whatever was best for the bakery, that’s what we would do.” 

Louis Jr. started riding on his father’s bakery delivery truck at the age of three. By eighth grade, he had learned all aspects of running production. 

When father and son became partners in the mid-70s, the bakery’s reach was limited to Omaha area grocery stores and restaurants. Louis Jr., intent on growing Rotella’s into a national supplier, learned from sales brokers how to sell bread to distributors and voluminous national accounts, including national and regional restaurant chains.

“We operate differently because we are family-owned. We still think we’re a small business. To the outside world, we’re not a small business. We’re one of the largest specialty bakeries in America,” said Rocky Rotella, Director of National Sales. 

Rotella’s marked the early 1980s with several advances, including the launch of a national campaign to sell fresh, frozen bread and the development of a first-of-its-kind product catalogue.

“Louis Jr. had this idea that he wanted a catalogue – a piece he could use to support his plans for national distribution. This was unheard of in the baking industry at that time. Nobody was doing a catalogue. Nobody,” said Omaha illustrator and designer Mark Chickinelli, a longtime Rotella’s collaborator.

In a nod to national demand, Rotella’s state-of-the-art, high-speed production lines run almost non-stop these days, churning out seven main product lines:

• Bread loaves

• Dinner and banquet rolls

• Hoagies

• Buns 

• Specialty breads, including flat breads and baguettes

• Ciabatta 

• Gluten-free

The bakery’s march into the gluten-free era came in 2012, spearheaded by Louis III and his brother John. (Rotella’s 40-acre campus in La Vista, NE, includes 15,000 sq. ft. of production space dedicated to gluten-free products.) Rotella’s now supplies certified gluten-free bread to a number of large chain accounts. 

The bakery’s R&D team is continually evolving its formulas and techniques, leading to new product introductions and efficiencies. 

“A lot of our regional and national chain accounts want us to help create a menu as opposed to just marrying their thoughts with a particular product. Because that’s become so profound, we created a test kitchen and hired an executive chef, a corporate chef and a scientist,” said Louis III. “It’s the perfect set-up for collaboration and innovation.” 

Old world skill and expertise coupled with modern technology – that’s how they do it at Rotella’s. As the bakery marks its centennial anniversary, fourth and fifth generations are now involved in running and growing the business; a special source of pride for the 71-year-old president and CEO. 

“From the time I was a kid to what the bakery is today, you sit back and you think, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Louis Jr. said. 

The bakery started humbly at 21st & Pierce St. with less than a dozen employees. Now, 100 years later, the Rotella’s Bakery “family” – a team of more than 400 employees – is helping to feed a na-tion.

“It’s ‘we’ at Rotella’s. It’s ‘our’ bakery. We try to make everyone who works here feel like part of the family,” Louis Jr. said. “Having so many great and loyal workers throughout our history has made us a top-notch bakery. … I’m proud of all our employees…the whole Rotella team, both past and present. Their hard work and dedication to strive for high quality products and extraordinary service has been a coveted secret since 1921.”

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