The Van Trump Report

How Two Idaho Farmers Turned Potato Scraps into an American Food Classic

The Great Depression was one of the worst times in modern history for American farmers. Like others of the time, brothers Francis Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg barely scraped by. They initially grew sweet corn and potatoes on the borders of eastern Oregon and their native Idaho but a big gamble on the future of American food consumption and an ingenious vision for potato scraps helped them create one of the most successful frozen food companies in America. That company, Ore-Ida, and their signature TaterTot brand would later be acquired by H.J. Heinz for $30 million.  

Golden Grigg was born in 1911, followed by Francis in 1913 in Nampa, Idaho to Parley Mormon Grigg Jr. and Thankful Halsey Gardner. They were raised with 11 other brothers and sisters on a small cattle and dairy farm where the two later in life recounted how they learned the value of hard work at an early age. Francis, who went by F. Nephi of just Nephi, was the leader of the two brothers that would spend most of their adult lives in business together. Both appear to have been high school drop outs but as history would eventually prove, their innovative spirit more than made up for what they lacked in education. Nephi described his personal motto as, “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it.”  

But by the early 1940’s, Nephi was convinced that frozen food was future of American produce consumption. They began shipping corn by railroad to other cities, packing their sweet corn in crushed ice to keep it fresh on its way to kitchens up to 600 miles away. Eventually, they began using a quick-freeze factory in Ontario, Oregon, that allowed their production and sales to tripple by 1949. However, that success was interrupted when the factory they used shut down. So around 1950, the brothers took an even bigger gamble and set their sites on buying the bankrupt operation. They mortgaged both of their farms and borrowed the rest from their brother-in-law, Otis Williams, in 1952 to buy the frozen food plant for $500,000. It’s location on the border between Oregon and Idaho inspired the name for the new facility – Ore-Ida.    

They were the top distributor of frozen corn by 1951 but Nephi wanted in on the real money-making business – potatoes. More specifically, Nephi was intrigued with fellow Idahoian J.R. Simplot’s success at freezing french fries without turning them black, an innovation that had also propelled Simplot to near-billionaire status.

Ore-Ida started processing and selling french fries in 1951 but had problems separating the fries from the slivers and small pieces of potato scraps left behind. They convinced their equipment manufacturer to tweak the design to separate out the unwanted pieces and initially decided the scraps would go to feed the cattle and other livestock owned by the Grigg family. That was until Nephi realized how much potato product was going to the animals. In a letter later explaining this transformational moment, he wrote that as an entrepreneur, he couldn’t stand to see anything go to waste, especially “product that has been purchased from the grower, stored for months, gone thru the peeling process, gone thru the specking lines and trimmed of all the defects, only to be eliminated into the cattle feed.”  
Nephi Grigg decided to try mashing together the slivers of potatoes, adding flour and seasoning and forming them into what he eventually named Tater Tots. Nephi introduced his new product by bringing 15 pounds of Tater Tots to the National Potato Convention in Miami in 1954 which was held at the then new Fountainbebleu Hotel on Millionaire’s Row. Nephi reportedly bribed the chef to cook up his new potato concoction and serve them at  dinner  to the potato growers. The new product, laid out as appetizers on the tables, were “gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag it’s tail,” according to Nephi.

Thanks in large part to Tater Tots, Ore-Ida gained 25% of the frozen-potato market during the 1950s. With demand outstripping capacity, the company went public in 1961 and built more factories, bringing sales to $31 million in 1964. The Griggs sold Ore-Ida to Heinz in 1965. Golden Grigg passed away in 1991 and Nephi followed in 1994. Today, Americans consume approximately 70,000,000 pounds of Tater Tots, or 3,710,000,000 Tots per year. (Sources: Money, Eater, Wiki, BusinessHistory)

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