Longtime General Mills marketing research director Vern Cafarella never underestimated consumers.
He knew gimmicks didn’t inspire customer loyalty. Rather, success depended on understanding people’s motivations, then selling them products that made their lives better.
“He thought of his wife, his children, neighbors and friends as consumers. Why foist something on them that wasn’t in their best interest?” said former colleague and friend Roger Thompson.
Cafarella’s behind-the-scenes work influenced prominent brands such as Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Eddie Bauer and Big G cereals.
Cafarella died of respiratory failure on Dec. 23 surrounded by family and friends, with the big band jazz he loved playing in the background. He was 97.
He was born in Minneapolis into a music dynasty. His grandfather Joseph Cafarella co-founded the Cafarella Brothers Orchestra, and his father, Tonnie Cafarella, was a professional trumpet player.
He followed in their footsteps, playing the drums in the Bob Hall Orchestra as a young man. He also played guitar and piano and was known to serenade his wife, Joan, throughout their 64-year marriage.
“He had a deep voice,” said his son Johnny Cafarella. “He loved to sing. He was always singing around the house.”
Cafarella graduated from West High School in 1939. He joined the Naval Air Corps in 1943. He learned to fly planes and became a flight instructor based in Corpus Christi, Texas, during World War II.
After the war, he attended the University of Minnesota, studying business and psychology. He met his future wife, Joan Coursolle, a law student, on a blind date. They both graduated in 1949 and married in 1954. The couple settled in Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka and had five sons: Johnny, now of Orlando; Paul, of Chaska; Joe, of Victoria; Tom, of Rochester, and James. James preceded him in death.
Cafarella landed a job at a local ad agency. General Mills hired him away in 1959. He did marketing research for the cake mix division, later focusing on Big G Cereals.
“He was one of the smartest people I could talk to about research, design and analysis,” Thompson said.
During his career, Cafarella worked for several of the company’s divisions, including food, restaurants and toys.
In the late 1970s, he flew to Florida to tour a small chain of seafood restaurants called Red Lobster that General Mills was considering acquiring. Cafarella suggested some menu tweaks and said he believed it would be a success.
“Everything Vern predicted came to be. Red Lobster has over 700 units and $2 billion in sales annually,” Thompson said. “Nice call, Vern.”
When General Mills was developing a new Italian restaurant somewhere between fine dining and a pizza joint, Thompson turned to Cafarella. Cafarella had invited Thompson over for dinner and they had dined around the family’s large round table. Cafarella had insisted on a round table so everyone had an equal place, his son recalls.
At the center, there was an abundance of breads, a large bowl of salad to share and pasta. That meal would become part of the inspiration for the Olive Garden. “He was so focused on the customer experience. It made him so good in the restaurant business,” Johnny Cafarella said.
Cafarella also understood that in corporate America, your ideas would take root if you set aside your ego, said his son Paul: “He also used to say, ‘It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.’ ”
He retired from General Mills in 1984 but worked an additional 25 years as a consultant for Darden Restaurants, the spinoff of General Mills’ restaurant division.
In addition to his wife and four of his sons, he is survived by seven grandchildren. Services have been held.