The Rotella family is not afraid of progress. In fact, the Rotellas have embraced progress, and it’s what has allowed Rotella’s Italian Bakery, La Vista, Neb., to grow into the nationwide supplier of bread, buns and rolls that it is today. Lou Rotella Sr. was the driving force behind many of the company’s initiatives to automate away from his father’s manual process. To him, automation and equipment was the path to the growth. 

In the 1960s, Lou Rotella Sr. introduced sliced bread to the product portfolio as well as plastic packaging that allowed the bread to stay fresher longer. In 1965, after decades of growth, Rotella’s made its first move, to a 22,000 square-foot building at 24th and Pierce Street. The company remained in that building until 1988. 

The 1970s was a decade in which the company streamlined its focus and started making investments in the growth that was coming. In 1975, Lou Rotella Sr. became the full owner of Rotella’s with the commitment from his son Lou Rotella Jr., now president and chief executive officer, to join the family business. They were also joined by Lou Rotella’s Sr.’s son-in-law Dean Jacobsen Sr., comptroller, and nephew Jim Rotella, vice president of sales. The company decided to discontinue its pastry and sweet goods program and focus solely on bread, buns and rolls. And in the second half of the decade, they made their first investment in automation: a six-pocket divider and a tunnel oven.  

“We knew we had to do it, but first you had to have the money to do it, the business to do it, the space to put it in and the guts to do it,” Lou Rotella Jr. said. “My dad was so forward-thinking and wanted to move so fast that Dean, Jim and I had to hold him back.” 

Lou Rotella Jr. quickly took over day-to-day operations when he joined the business and has led with the same forward-thinking spirit his father did. He streamlined operations, taking production from 24 hours a day to 10 hours a day. This freed up capacity, and he then set his sights on markets beyond Omaha. 

He took an opportunity to franchise the business in Lincoln, Neb. When the company initially had trouble competing on the retail store shelves, Lou Rotella Jr. pivoted and sold to restaurants and other foodservice operators and found a foothold. He replicated the model in Des Moines, Iowa, and later Kansas City, Mo. Lou Rotella Jr. credits his father’s support with their success in expanding beyond Omaha. 

“He always let me do whatever I wanted,” he said. “When I said I wanted to stay in Lincoln, he took my side over the consultant who was telling us to leave that market. He took my side about staying in Des Moines, too. He always would say, ‘If you have a good horse, he’ll take you where you need to go, and that’s what I have in you.’ ” 

That isn’t to say Lou Rotella Sr.’s faith in the next generation was blind. The patriarch was methodical and had a system for them as they tried new things and changed things up, but at the end of the day, he trusted them more than outside voices. 

“Any time I wanted to do something different or make changes, he was open to it, but I had to monitor and make sure the results were there,” Jim Rotella explained. “He would always say that when you make a change, you have to see how it affects everything around the change, and he was right about that.” 

This attitude of empowering the next generation continues even to this day as Lou Rotella Jr. has passed on day-to-day operations to the fourth generation, his sons Lou Rotella III, chief operating officer; John Rotella, general manager; and Jim’s son, Rocky Rotella, director of sales. 

“If I’m doing everything, or if Dean or Jimmy are doing everything, and we have our thumbs on them, how are they going to learn? How are they going to make decisions?” Lou Rotella Jr. explained. “You have to let them do the job, first with you watching over them and answering questions, and then you don’t need to. They’re doing it.”

With expanded distribution in Nebraska and Iowa, Rotella’s made another big leap in its product portfolio: frozen bread. This would enable the bakery to go beyond its Midwest region and begin selling to customers nationwide. 

“I realized we were a fresh business trying to compete against frozen, and I just asked, ‘Why couldn’t we do that?’ ” Lou Rotella Jr. said. “In 1983, we started to test it, and that’s what allowed us to go nationwide.” 

Over the decades, Rotella’s has consistently grown its business regardless of market forces and found plenty of demand for its products. Mr. Jacobsen Sr. attributes that to multiple factors: a high-quality product and the hard work of the local and national sales staff. 

“We were always a regional bakery, but now we’re more national,” he said. “With that team out there pushing those sales, the demand has grown a lot more than what we had before because we just have more territory.” 

With the explosion in business in the 1980s came the need again for more space and more investment. In 1989, Rotella’s moved to its current location in La Vista, Neb. The expansion didn’t stop there. Today the 40-acre campus includes 500,000 square feet of production space. The South bakery produces buns, rolls, hoagies, ciabatta and bread. The East facility houses a bun and roll line; the segregated gluten-free bakery that produces buns, rolls and bread; and the test kitchen where customers can work with Rotella’s corporate R&D chef to develop new products using the company’s breads. In 2023, Rotella’s plans to add another ciabatta line to the East facility to add redundancy and capacity. The North bakery handles bread production.

Today, Rotella’s Italian Bakery serves retail and foodservice customers nationwide through its frozen distribution program as well as the 50 local routes of fresh bread it drives every day in Omaha, Lincoln, Des Moines and Kansas City. The company offers hundreds of SKUs to customers. Orders and production scheduling are all handled by a computer program, another tool in which the Rotellas were early adopters. 

“Dad used to do orders by hand at the end of the day, but I knew once we got into this facility, we could use computers to do this for us,” Mr. Jacobsen Sr. said. “Computers were just starting out, but orders are just numbers, so once we were in this facility, we developed a program that could schedule the orders.” 

After every investment in a new facility or new production line came the pressure to find the business to fill that new capacity and pay for it. However, any concern the third generation had was unfounded as time and time again they filled new bakeries and production lines quickly. In 1989, when the company moved into its first building at its current location, it only had installed one tunnel oven. By 1991, they put in a second. A dock expansion followed a few years later. 

The East facility started out as warehouse and distribution but was turned into production space as an overflow bakery. It was running at full capacity in six months. In 2007, the North plant became operational, and in 2012, Rotella’s added a segregated gluten-free bakery inside its East facility. In 2018, Rotella’s installed another bun and roll line to its South facility, and already has plans in place to build a new warehouse and freezer space about eight miles away to free up space in the South facility for future expansions. 

This article is an excerpt from the February 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Rotella's Italian Bakery, click here.