Tater tots: nuggets of potato goodness, fast food favorite, and a staple in every school cafeteria. But how did the french fry’s lumpy step-cousin become a lunch room icon? It turns out tater tots are not just delicious, but representative of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity at its finest.
The origin of tater tots began in the early 1950s. Two brothers, Nephi and Golden Griggs, who worked on their family’s farm selling corn and potatoes, took a gamble on the burgeoning frozen food industry and mortgaged their land to buy a flash-freezing plant. There was big money to be made in quick-cooking french fries and their purchase soon paid off. The factory, which was located on the border of Oregon and Idaho, generated the name of this new company and thus Ore-Ida was born.
However, there was one major production issue. The machinery that sliced the potatoes into fries had trouble separating the fries from fragments and created slivers of irregularly shaped potatoes. Because of this impediment, a new mechanism had to be added, which could help sort and eliminate unwanted potato pieces. With the addition of this new technology, the brothers now had lots of leftover potato scraps. Where would they all go?
At first they were fed to livestock and cattle on the family farm. But the Grigg brothers wondered if there was anything they could do with the excess of irregular potato parts beyond sustaining their own animals. While they weren’t going to waste, they weren’t being used to turn a profit either. There had to be a way to consume them, right?
After smashing and smushing them together, they formed small, bite-sized nuggets of potato parts. And then, as if out of nowhere, the tater tot appeared! But mass-producing the snack was tough and even required new machinery. (For a more in-depth look at this process, Kelsey McKinney does an amazing job parsing out the specifics behind the innovation with this article in Eater.)
Related Video: Tater Tot Waffles with Smoked Salmon and Caviar
Tater tots, a term Ore-Ida smartly decided to trademark, made their debut at the 1954 National Potato Convention in Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, after Griggs bribed a chef to cook and serve them for the guests. It was a naturally grand setting for a naturally grand success and they hit grocery store shelves the following year. In terms of sales, over the course of the 1950s, Ore-Ida went on to gain over 25 percent of the frozen potato market, bringing sales to $31 million in 1964. This was in no small part due to their innovative use of spud scraps.
Over the course of their 60-plus year history, tater tots have gained a reputation all their own. Whether you’re craving a greasy late-night snack or a side dish drenched in elementary school nostalgia, these potato bites always hit the spot. Even if they’re coming from 7-Eleven. (The chain even set up a customizable tater tot bar earlier this year.) And if you feel a little more ambitious, you can make them from at home from scratch. Not that there’s anything wrong with frying up a frozen batch, but sometimes you’re craving something just a little more homemade. Check out our basic Tater Tot recipe, as well as this round-up of tot-based recipes. Because potatoes always make everything better.