LINCOLN, Neb. -- Zena Weiler, who co-founded the 50-store Valentino's Grand Italian Buffet chain with her husband, Valentine, died on March 16 following two years of failing health. She was 87.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, the couple opened their first store in 1957 with a prayer and a $500 loan. Its first menu was printed on a piece of lined notebook paper, and a small pizza sold for 75 cents.
Daughter Martha Shinkle said her parents' corner market was going under when they decided to try their hand at pizza.
"They were just looking to survive, and they were lucky," Shinkle said.
In 1971, the Weilers sold their restaurant to Tony and Ron Messineo who grew it into a multi-million dollar business with 50 locations across the Midwest.
"Zena was intuitively a great businessperson who always had a sense of what the customer wanted," said Tony Messineo, company president.
Valentino's still makes its pizza dough and many sauces with the old Weiler recipes.
"Just three or four years ago, we called Zena for her thoughts on a couple of recipes," Messineo said.
She is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-grandson.