Fries With That?

Linda Burton posting from Boise, Idaho – A person can’t hear the word “Idaho” without the word “potato” inserting itself into consciousness, at least, subconsciously. While it’s true that Idaho soil is just right for potato growing, the real “potato story” is bigger than that, and centers itself in Boise. The average person (not living in Boise) may not be familiar with the name J R Simplot. You can read about him on any list of billionaires though. And something you probably eat every day is something you have because of something this man did. He’s something!

John Richard (J R) Simplot was born in 1909 in Dubuque, Iowa but his family moved to Idaho the next year, homesteading in the newly irrigated Magic Valley. J R quit school and left home at age 14, striking out on his own as a farmhand. At the time of his death at 99, he was the oldest billionaire on the Forbes 400. What did this man do in those intervening 85 years? Hint: his license plate read “Mr Spud.”

He was 19 when he flipped a coin for a potato sorter; that one sorter speeded up work so fast that neighboring farmers sought his services; one potato sorter became four; one potato shed became 33; this old-fashioned entrepreneur was in business, big time. During WWII the business truly flourished because J R Simplot figured out how to dehydrate potatoes. WWII. Army rations. Dehydrated potatoes and onions. He sold millions of pounds to the US military.

But it was the French fry that became the Simplot mainstay. In the early 1950s, company chemist Ray Dunlap developed the processes to produce quality frozen French fries. In 1967, Simplot  and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc agreed with a hand shake that the Simplot Company would provide frozen French fries to the restaurant chain. The restaurants had been hand-cutting potatoes; besides the quality control issues, the favored Russet potato wasn’t available year round. By 1972, all McDonald’s fries were frozen. The rest is history.

Today the J R Simplot Company has major operations in areas such as ranching, food processing, mining, and fertilizer production in several states. Food processing plants are situated in prime growing areas, such as Aberdeen, Caldwell, and Nampa, Idaho; Moses Lake and Othello, Washington; Grand Forks, North Dakota and West Memphis, Arkansas. Headquartered at 999 Main Street in Boise, the company does business around the globe with major operations in the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and China; products are marketed in more than 40 countries worldwide. It is one of the largest privately held agribusiness companies in the nation, continuing to pioneer innovations in plant nutrition and food processing.

J R Simplot photo by Tim Woodward

J R Simplot retired in 1973, but stayed on as Chairman, and then Chairman Emeritus until he was 94. And he didn’t slow down, much. He did give up skiing at 89, but it’s told he ran 150 yards down a muddy slope on a duck-hunting trip at 91, and bought his first Wave Runner at 94. He drove his own car, answered his own phone, and flew coach. His favorite restaurant was McDonalds, where, I’m guessing, he always ordered “fries with that.”