The state-of-the-art production lines run almost non-stop these days — local and nationwide demand requires it. Industrial mixers churn and aerate huge batches of dough: white, whole wheat and pumpernickel. They’re divided, shaped and baked into seemingly endless streams of slider, hoagie and hamburger buns, signature Vienna Sliced Bread and Steakhouse Twists.
To the outsider, the scope of the operation, from the battalions of baking trays to the delivery-ready pallets of packaged product, the Italian flag and wheat shaft logo front and center, is almost overwhelming. And yet, it all comes back to the simplest of ingredients — flour, water, salt and yeast — transformed through care and chemistry. Likewise, the Rotella legacy — nearly a century old and counting — is equal parts Old World skill, commitment to quality and dedication to service.
Opened after Alessandro and Maria Rotella immigrated to America and settled in Omaha, Rotella’s Italian Bakery is under the steady and visionary leadership of their grandson, Louis Rotella Jr. While revering the techniques of his Italian grandparents, the 70-year-old president and CEO has also accelerated the growth-momentum of his father, Louis Sr., elevating the bakery from a local favorite to a powerhouse supplier nationwide.
“He’s always been focused on making his father proud — proud that he raised a hard-working son capable of achieving big dreams,” says Louis Rotella III, Louis Jr.’s son and Rotella’s chief operating officer.
Louis Jr. started dabbling in the family business shortly after learning to walk. At age 3, he was riding on his father’s bakery delivery truck. By eighth grade, he had learned all aspects of running production.
“He grew up in the business,” Louis III says.
After graduating from Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska at Omaha) in the 1970s, Louis Jr. became partners with his father.
“At that point, the bakery’s reach was 100% in Omaha — the grocery stores and the restaurants here. It wasn’t until 1980 that my dad had the idea of expanding outside Omaha,” Louis III says.
The bakery’s first expansion was to Lincoln, then to Des Moines. Louis Jr. launched a national campaign to sell fresh, frozen bread, steadily increased route distribution, and entered into sales agreements with regional and national restaurant chains.
“He was able to pair a particular product or create a specialty product for those chains,” Louis III says. “We’ve become a true specialty wholesale manufacturer.”
In 1989, Rotella’s Italian Bakery moved from 24th Street to its current four-building complex in La Vista. Louis Jr. has prioritized those technical advances that have allowed the nation to experience Rotella’s line of some 400 products.
“My father really learned about automation from his father. Automation was key to growing our business,” Louis III says. “Old-World skill and experience coupled with modern technology are part of our mission. It’s allowed my father to accomplish what he wanted to on a larger scale.”
Even as the company has grown — to about 400 employees today — Louis Jr. remains very hands-on.
“My dad models excellence,” Louis III says. “He enjoys being in the plant, creating and developing new products, and saying hello to the employees — the Rotella’s Bakery family.”
The family business, founded in 1921, has extended to a fifth generation. Success is evident. It’s also shared through a host of philanthropic endeavors and ideals, including Special Olympics, JDRF and quality education. (Louis Jr. attended the now-defunct St. Ann Catholic School and Archbishop Ryan High School. Louis III and his two brothers attended St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic School and Creighton Prep.)
“Giving back is rooted in the company, and that has never changed,” Louis IIl says.
Neither has the bakery’s commitment to excellence, innovation and turning the finest — but simplest — ingredients into high-quality, customer-pleasing products.