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The Tater Tot Is American Ingenuity at Its Finest

The genius move that turned potato scraps into a frozen-food empire


F. Nephi Grigg had an unbeatable scheme. Nephi and his brother Golden had travelled 2,883 miles from the tiny Oregon border town where they ran their frozen potato company to the white sparkling sands of Miami Beach.

This was 1954. The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami was the new shining jewel on Millionaire’s Row: the dramatic sweeping curve of its design facing the seemingly infinite ocean, all the tans of 1950s Miami laid out beneath the balcony views on hundreds of lounge chairs sidling up to the pool between the hotel and the beach. It was remarkably grand, irresponsibly luxurious. In the main dining room where breakfast was about to be served, the tables were dressed with white linen, surrounded by mid-century modern wood backed chairs all laid out beneath not one, but four massive, trembling crystal chandeliers.

This was Nephi’s stage, his grand debut. Two stories below the dining room where all of the members of the 1954 National Potato Convention were sidling up to tables, talking shop, hungry for breakfast, Nephi was bargaining with the head chef. In his bag he had carried 15 pounds of his new creation all the way from Oregon, and he wanted them cooked and served. What better test audience than a group of potato men? After some bribing, the chef agreed. The innovation was cooked, placed in small saucers, and distributed on the tables as samples.

“These were all gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail,” Nephi Grigg would write 35 years later. The golden potatoes had been cut into bite-sized pieces and fried, and they were a hit. Tater Tots were born.

In 1953, no one at the Griggs’ family potato plant in Northern Oregon planned to make anything other than frozen corn and french fries. These were the money makers, the big winners of the frozen food aisle; after all, this was the 1950s. Entrepreneurs across America were realizing in the wake of the second World War that Americans really loved heating up their dinner. Between 1945 and 1946, Americans bought 800 million pounds of frozen food. And the Grigg brothers wanted a bigger piece of that very frozen pie.

F. Nephi and Golden Grigg were two determined young Mormon entrepreneurs, willing to do anything to get their shot of the American Dream. Born in 1914, Nephi came of age during the Great Depression and was the leader of the two. He was a high school dropout prone to hyperbolic business proverbs. “Bite off more than you can chew,” he wrote, “then chew it.” “You can never go broke by taking a profit,” he relentlessly repeats in his letters to colleagues and his own “History of the Tot,” all found in his personal archive, currently housed at the J. Willard Marriot Library at the University of Utah. (In 1989, an employee of Ore-Ida foods reached out to Nephi Grigg desperate for the story of Tater Tots, noting there was no historical record of how the item came to be. Griggs responded with a five-and-a-half-page personal account that starts with the line, “The Tater Tot is the hero in the history of the saga of Ore-Idea Foods, Inc.” Since his death in 1995, Nephi’s response has been housed in his personal archive; it’s the source for most of the tot’s origin story that exists today.)

During the Great Depression, Nephi and his brother just scraped by in their native Idaho, working as farmers growing and selling potatoes and corn like all of their neighbors. (In the early ‘40s, they also operated a 40-acre dairy farm and restaurant near Vale, Oregon.)

But convinced that the future of produce was in the frozen food aisle, the brothers Grigg mortgaged their farms for a down payment on a flash-freezing plant in Northeastern Oregon. They paid $500,000 dollars for the space (over $4.5 million today). The factory, located on the border between Oregon and Idaho, spawned the name for their new company: Ore-Ida.

By 1951, Ore-Ida had already become the largest distributor of sweet corn in the United States. But the big money was in french fries. Fellow Idahoian J.R. Simplot figured out how to freeze french fries without turning them black in 1946, and was well on his way to billionaire status. The Grigg brothers wanted in. But french fry creation had a technology problem: The machinery could cut the potatoes into fries, but, as Nephi wrote, “we had a problem of separating the fries from the slivers and small pieces of potatoes that occurred [when] slicing the irregular shaped potatoes.”

When an equipment manufacturing company inexplicably showed up at their plant to demonstrate a prune sorter, Nephi and his plant superintendent Slim Burton chatted with them about a redesign. Could the barrel be redesigned so that it would eliminate the unwanted pieces of potatoes from the very wanted french fries? It could.

This being the northwest, and with the Grigg brothers’ company surrounded by farmland, Nephi decided that the scraps would go to feed the cattle and other livestock owned by the Grigg family. This was fine for a while, until Nephi realized that these cattle were getting enormous amounts of potato product. He was an entrepreneur, goddammit, and not one to waste anything, 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,” as Nephi wrote in a letter to an Ore-Ida representative in 1989.

Tater tots topped with curry, Kewpie mayo, sriracha, and scallions.
WesBurger ‘N’ More/Facebook

So they got creative, smashed those bits together with some new machinery, blanched, formed, cooked in oil, and froze what would become their company’s namesake. The original plan, according to Grigg’s papers, was for the tots to be fried, but later home chefs realized they tasted just as good baked, and Ore-Ida changed its branding. Some brilliant man on the research committee — who according to Nephi’s notes “traveled the markets playing a ukelele and demonstrating our product” but whose name is lost to history — came up with the name with the help of a thesaurus and an affinity for alliteration, and the Tater Tot was off to the races.

“A new product has about a three-year jump on the competition,” Nephi Grigg wrote. Quickly, the company trademarked the name “Tater Tot,” bought new machinery, and began producing the salty addictive snack in mass. The work was difficult. New machines had to be created to deal with the very sticky potato product, according to Nephi’s notes. Steel drums 18 inches in diameter, the size of a man’s torso, spun round and round filled with tot-sized cavities that were filled with the potato sludge and then ejected by spring punches onto a belt and down the processing line where they were seasoned, and later frozen.

A 1958 article in The Decatur Daily Review in Illinois titled “Cook Meals in Seconds and Minutes” informs housewives about how to cook the new innovation. “Ready to eat in a minute and a half,” the article promises, “the little finger-sized tots are good when salted for appetizers or meals.” Several other novelties were presented in the article — including a 22-pound pot roast, an individual slice of peach pie, and frozen chives — but none of them quite had the staying power of the tot.

“The hero profit item,” as Nelphi called the Tater Tot in 1989, made Ore-Ida into a household name. Despite what Grigg’s wrote about the process being a “struggle” and “complicated,” the brothers sold their first Tater Tots the same year as their Potato Convention debut: 1954. Quickly Ore-Ida became known for the bite-sized thumbs of seasoned potato slivers. The company gained 25 percent of the frozen potato market in the 1950s. It opened a second plant in 1960, went public in 1961.

In 1964, the company was making $31 million annually, but struggling with problems in the family: According to some accounts, employees complained that nepotism ran Ore-Ida. Grigg sold the company to H.J. Heinz in 1965 for $30 million, marking the national powerhouse’s entry into the frozen food rat-race.

Heinz merged with Kraft Foods in 2015, and like its parent company’s ketchup, the Tater Tot has become such a common item that few people realize the name is trademarked by the Ore-Ida company. There have been attempts to fix this. In 2014, Ore-Ida ran an advertising campaign encouraging buyers to not “be fooled by Imi-taters,” because its Tater Tots are “the original and only.”

In an attempt to renew public interest in the Tater Tot, advertisers focused on its history. “People now really crave ‘story value’ in the things they buy,” Marshall Ross, the chief creative officer for the Tater Tot campaign, told the New York Times in 2014. But the full story, from prune machines to cow slop and fancy hotels continues to get lost.

Today, they’re the hero of late night bar binges and drab school lunches. Across the country, chefs are creating fancified versions of the original snack to spice up more casual dinner menus.

Making your own tater tots, though, requires a ton of work. All of the machinery Ore-Ida owns turns out to be pretty necessary to get tots into the needed shapes. Manresa chef David Kinch’s recipe for homemade tater tots takes a total of 12 hours to make. Wes Rowe, chef and owner of Wesburger ‘N’ More in San Francisco, serves tater tots on his menu in three forms: regular tots, queso tots (Rowe’s favorite), and deluxe tots, which change based on the weekly menu. “We have made our own before,” he says, “but after all the time and labor we all agreed we just love our classic Ore-Ida tots the most.”

He’s certainly not alone. “Fuck making them,” says Dale Talde, head chef and founder of the casual Asian-American restaurant Talde in South Brooklyn. “I always buy them frozen. There is no benefit from making them unless you are a sadist.” Talde’s former restaurant, the now-closed Pork Slope, served up tots in a dish called “Irish Nachos”: a layer of crispy tots, topped with cheese sauce, chili, onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños. Talde says he thinks the tot has endured at all levels — from caviar paired in restaurants like Elske in Chicago to school lunch trays — because people “have great memories and and love crunchy, salty stuff.”

All of that nostalgia helps make Tater Tots a beloved American craving — and it’s all because one man, in his no-waste Depression era mindset, didn’t want his hard-earned product ending up in a slop bin. But just like those rescued potatoes, the story of the Tater Tots’ haphazard slapdash beginnings were hidden — deep in the University of Utah archive, just waiting to be made into something delicious.

Kelsey McKinney is a writer in Washington, DC.
Editor: Erin DeJesus