Christophe Vaille is a professional writer, editor, and historian.
It’s hard to resist these crunchy golden-brown potato morsels piled high in a basket, or nestled on a plate accompanying our favorite burger or sandwich. For many of us, “Tater Tot” and “comfort food” go hand-in-hand. It’s ingrained in our culture—at least from a food perspective!
Invented In Oregon
Did you know these world-famous potato nuggets were invented in Oregon, and that they were the creative byproduct of potato scraps originally used as cattle feed?
The Griggs Brothers
The story of the Tater Tot traces back to two young Mormon entrepreneurs named Nephi and Golden Griggs who came of age during the Great Depression. Originally from Idaho, the Griggs brothers were potato farmers, like most of their neighbors.
Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, the Griggs family survived by growing and selling potatoes, but during the postwar years as Americans increasingly turned to convenience foods—frozen foods in particular—the Griggs brothers were certain that their road to riches lay in servicing this growing demand.
Convinced the future of produce resided in frozen food, the two brothers mortgaged their farms to purchase a flash-freezing plant in eastern Oregon for $500,000 (approximately $4.5 million today). As the factory was located on the border between Oregon and Idaho, they chose to name their new company Ore-Ida.
What to Do With Potato Scraps?
Corn and potatoes were Ore-Ida’s mainstay, and the company soon became the largest distributor of sweet corn in the country, but the real profit lay in French fries.
French fries, though immensely profitable, posed certain production problems. Nephi (the leader of the two brothers) described their challenge as follows: “We had a problem separating the fries from the slivers and small pieces of potatoes that occurred when slicing the irregular-shaped potatoes.” Instead of wasting the scrap pieces, the brothers had been feeding it to their cattle and other livestock.
Despite the fact that their potato scraps were being utilized as feed for farm animals, Nephi Griggs—always focused on efficiency and profit maximization—was bothered by their inability to derive any revenue from the constant flow of potato byproducts.
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In a letter to an Ore-Ida colleague, Nephi vented his frustration at not putting to better use “product that has been purchased from the grower, stored for months, gone through the peeling process, gone through the specking lines and trimmed off defects, only to be eliminated into the cattle feed.”
An unexpected visit by a representative from an equipment manufacturing company, however, proved to be serendipitous. Although the company representative was there to demonstrate a prune sorter, Nephi and his plant superintendent envisioned utilizing the equipment in a different manner. Instead of sorting prunes, could the machinery be refashioned to sort irregular potato pieces from French fries? To their delight, it could.
Creative Use for Potato Scraps
It wasn’t long before the Griggs brothers and their people at Ore-Ida devised a creative use for the supply of potato scraps. By smashing the bits together using new machinery, then blanching, forming the crushed potatoes into nuggets, and cooking them in oil, a completely new product was created. These potato nuggets could subsequently be frozen, bagged, and distributed.
Although the original idea was for the nuggets to be fried, it was soon discovered that baking them produced equally good results. According to Nephi, a man on their research committee who “traveled the markets playing a ukulele and demonstrating our product,” came up with the name. Unfortunately, the man’s name has been lost to history, though his talent for creative alliteration lives on. The name “Tater Tot” is iconic the world over for fun, palate-pleasing, potato goodness.
Nephi remarked in his notes (which are now housed at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah), that a “new product has about a three year jump on the competition.” With this in mind, Ore-Ida rushed to trademark the “Tater Tot” name, purchased additional machinery, and began mass producing their tasty invention.
Despite the success of the Tater Tot, the process to create them was a bit of a sticky mess—literally. New equipment had to be fashioned to deal with the starchy potato product. Steel drums the diameter of a human torso rotated continuously filling tot-sized molds with potato. These molded potatoes would then be ejected onto a conveyor belt and sent down a line for seasoning and subsequent freezing.
Convenient Food Snack
Ore-Ida’s commitment to the Tater Tot, in spite of production difficulties, proved a gamble worth taking. The Griggs brothers' promotion of their new product at the 1954 National Potato Convention was a huge hit, garnering interest in Tater Tots throughout the industry. The media was also quick to embrace Tater Tots as a convenient new food for snacks and meals that was tasty and easy to prepare.
So successful was the Tater Tot that Nephi referred to it as their “hero profit item,” and cited it as responsible for making Ore-Ida a household name. By the end of the 1950s Ore-Ida had captured 25 percent of the domestic frozen potato market. A second plant was opened in 1960, and by 1961 Ore-Ida had gone public.
In 1964, despite generating an annual profit of $31 million, problems within the family necessitated a sale of Ore-Ida. The Griggs brothers sold the company to H.J. Heinz in 1965 for $30 million. The Heinz purchase of Ore-Ida was the company’s first foray into the frozen food market. By the time Heinz merged with Kraft in 2015 the Tater Tot was so common of a product that few people realized the name was still trademarked to Ore-Ida. An advertising campaign was even created to differentiate Ore-Ida tots from the competition. The campaign warned, “Don’t be fooled by Imi-taters,” because Ore-Ida Tater Tots were the “original and only.”
Today, as one of America’s cherished food items, Tater Tots have been incorporated in multitudes of home recipes and even elevated to culinary feature items at certain restaurants. There is no end of possibilities when it comes to something as versatile as the Tater Tot! So, next time you find yourself reaching for a golden crisp Tater Tot, think of the Griggs brothers and the Oregonian ingenuity that transformed cattle feed into a delectable treat enjoyed by millions.