A 1961 Ore-Ida truck featuring its most popular product, the tator tot.
origin story / culture

The Tater Tot Is American Ingenuity at Its Finest

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

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.
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