Well-known Duluth businessman and Grandma's Restaurant co-founder Michael "Mick" Paulucci died Saturday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 71 years old.
Paulucci, son of the late frozen-food magnate Jeno Paulucci, grew up splitting his time between Duluth and Florida with his parents and two sisters. He served as vice president in many of his father's businesses throughout his life. He met longtime business partner Andy Borg, discovered they both had practical business experience and decided to venture into the restaurant business together.
Paulucci co-founded Grandma's Restaurant Co. with Borg in 1976 in Canal Park. At the time, the area was primarily an industrial waterfront area with bars, heavy manufacturing, warehouses and wholesalers. The original restaurant, formerly the Sand Bar on South Lake Avenue, was across the street from Jeno's frozen-food production warehouse.
Steve Greenfield started at the restaurant as a busboy in 1976 and later became an advertising director for the company. He credits Grandma's and the other businesses founded by Paulucci and Borg for Canal Park's transformation.
"You used to pass by scrapyards and industrial buildings before you landed at the oasis that was Grandma's Restaurant at the end," Greenfield said. "And it slowly started to change into what it is today thanks to Mick and Andy's work."
Within a year of founding the first restaurant, Grandma's became a major sponsor of a new marathon which adopted its name thanks to a donation of $600.
The business partners founded more restaurants, including Little Angie's Cantina, named after Paulucci's 11-year-old daughter; Bellisio's Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, named for Paulucci's grandmother's hometown in Italy; and Grandma's Sports Garden. Grandma's Saloon and Grill now has three locations: Canal Park and Miller Hill in Duluth as well as a restaurant in Virginia. The company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016.
"He'll be remembered for the many, many opportunities he created for countless people over the years," Grandma's general manager Brian Daugherty said. "I've been receiving messages from people throughout the day saying how they learned so much about hospitality in working for this company and how thankful they were to him."
Paulucci sold his holdings in the company to Borg in 2014, according to a News Tribune report at the time. He cited wanting to "spend more time with his wife and family."
Personally, Paulucci was known for "being a very generous soul," long-time friend Louis Kemp said. He met Paulucci in 1966 as they were both driving convertible Jaguar XKEs on Arrowhead Road.
"I'd never seen another car like mine in Duluth, so I had to slow down when I saw him coming," Kemp said. "We rolled down our windows to talk to each other. Jeno had bought him that car as a graduation present and he was amazed to see another like it in Duluth, too."
The two reconnected shortly after at the Flame restaurant and became fast friends and business partners in Kemp's Alaska-based crab and seafood company.
"He was the kind of friend who would do anything for you. He was very loyal that way," Kemp said. "If he was your enemy, watch out. He was a little like Jeno that way; they both made very formidable adversaries."
Paulucci and Kemp traveled the world together in Jeno's private jet and stayed in touch all their lives. Kemp had just visited Paulucci in Las Vegas about six months before he died. Both were godfathers to each others' children and Kemp served as best man in two of Paulucci's four weddings.
"By the third one, he said, 'You're bad luck, I'm not having you.' I said I didn't blame him," Kemp said. "He was funny like that, with an incredible sense of humor."
Paulucci was married four times and raised two children, Angela and Jeno.
When Paulucci's parents, Jeno and Lois Paulucci, died in 2011, the family found itself in a long-lasting feud over the family fortune. A settlement was finally agreed to in 2019 which was reported by the News Tribune to have "closed the book on at least three dozen lawsuits and covered the fate of millions of dollars held in trusts, allegations of undue influence and other wrongdoing and even who gets possession of a handmade quilt and a painting."
The settlement also solidified a rift between the three descendants, Michael, Cynthia and Gina, with the former two agreeing to not contact the latter.
In September 2019, Paulucci published a memoir, "Wild Vagabond," detailing his adventures from his lifetime, his at times volatile relationship with his father and other family members and ex-wives.