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The History of Tater Tots

F. Nephi Grigg and his brother Golden worked as farmers in their native Idaho during the Great Depression, but they believed the future was in frozen foods, so they mortgaged their farms for a down payment on a flash-freezing plant in Northeastern Oregon. The factory was located along the border between Oregon and Idaho, so they named their new company Ore-Ida. By 1951, the company was the largest distributor of sweet corn in the United States, but they knew the biggest profits would be in selling frozen French fries. J.R. Simplot had already invented a way to freeze French fries without turning them black back in 1946, but the method involved manually separating the viable fries from small pieces of potato that were generated during the automated slicing process. Nephi and his plant superintendent Slim Burton spoke to an equipment manufacturing company during an unexpected visit to the plant and were able to negotiate a redesign of the machinery that would allow the fries and the leftover potato pieces to be separated. They began using the separated scraps to feed their family-owned cattle, but Nephi was unhappy with this perceived waste of viable product. To address the issue, the Grigg brothers used new machinery to smash the bits of potato together, cooked them in oil, and froze them. Nephi convinced the head chef at the luxurious Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to serve the new potato product at the 1954 National Potato Convention taking place there. The samples were served to the potato businessmen and were an immediate hit. That same year, Ore-Ida began selling their new product under the name Tater Tots. The moniker was created by an unnamed man on the research committee who helped promote the product through demonstrations and even played a ukulele to drum up interest. Ore-Ida trademarked the name and began mass-producing Tater Tots; interestingly, they were originally intended to be fried, but when they realized that home cooks preferred to bake Tater Tots, the Griggs updated the product branding to reflect this. Ore-Ida's Tater Tots were so successful that a second plant was opened in 1960 and the company went public in 1961. Allegedly, the growing company faced some internal corporate struggles, including employee complaints of nepotism. In 1965, the Griggs decided to sell Ore-Ida to H.J. Heinz for $30 million. Later, Heinz merged with Kraft Foods in 2015. Despite multiple ownership changes, Tater Tots have remained a stalwart favorite in the frozen food aisle. In fact, they are so popular that many people refer to the wide variety of similar potato products that have emerged over the years simply as “Tater Tots.”

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