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Ore-Ida to end production at its Ontario plant. What’s that mean for iconic Tater Tots?

UPDATED: Tue., March 29, 2022

The VanBalen family of Wexford, Pa., reach for Ore-Ida Tater Tots from a plate that was prepared in their kitchen on March 23, 2004.  (Associated Press)
The VanBalen family of Wexford, Pa., reach for Ore-Ida Tater Tots from a plate that was prepared in their kitchen on March 23, 2004. (Associated Press)
By John Sowell Idaho Statesman

Tater Tots will soon forge closer ties to the Idaho side of Ore-Ida.

The iconic potato pellets created in Oregon by two brothers raised in Idaho will soon be produced by Idaho’s leading potato company.

Food conglomerate Kraft Heinz Co., co-headquartered in Chicago and Pittsburgh, has agreed to sell its potato processing plant in Ontario to Boise’s J.R. Simplot Co.

“The Ore-Ida brand is well-known and loved in the frozen potato industry, and combining this brand with Simplot’s experience in processing and distribution will benefit all parties involved,” Josh Jordan, a Simplot spokesperson, said by email. “It’s exciting for us to connect the ‘Ore’ back with the ‘Ida.’”

Heinz, which bought Ore-Ida from brothers Nephi and Golden Grigg for $30 million in 1965, will retain ownership of the Ore-Ida brand. Ore-Ida products will be produced under an exclusive contract with Simplot.

“Ore-Ida is an iconic part of the Kraft Heinz portfolio, and we believe this strategic agreement will help us continue to grow the brand while also bringing new innovation in frozen potatoes to the market,” Kraft Heinz spokesperson Stephanie Peterson said by email. “This strategic agreement will not change Ore-Ida products. Consumers can expect to get the same high-quality, great-tasting potato products that they’ve always enjoyed.”

Terms of the deal were not announced, and Ore-Ida did not explain its reasons for selling the plant, other than to say Simplot could provide greater efficiency by supplying potatoes and introducing better technology and innovation.

That would seem to suggest Simplot is better positioned to boost sales.

Three years ago, CNBC reported that Kraft Heinz was considering selling the Ore-Ida brand. Boise-based Lamb Weston and food giant Conagra were identified as potential suitors, but no deal was ever struck.

Kraft Heinz said Ore-Ida provides about $500 million in annual sales.

“We believe there’s still a lot of untapped growth,” Renee Peets, a Kraft Heinz senior vice president, said in a news release.

Simplot is going through a due-diligence process, and both companies hope Simplot will take over operation of the plant toward the end of June.

The Ontario plant employs about 600 workers. Simplot has not finalized its plans for them. Jordan said “we hope to bring as many people as possible onto the Simplot team.”

As a private company, Simplot said it won’t publicly disclose salaries for its workers. The company, Jordan said, is committed to its employees, and its salary and benefits are competitive in the areas it operates.

A joint news release from Simplot and Ore-Ida said Simplot would pay wages and salaries similar to what it provides to “similarly situated” Simplot employees.

“A complete and experienced employee base is vital to achieving our goals, and we’re thrilled to welcome them and look forward to gaining from their knowledge and dedication,” Jordan said.

Ore-Ida’s headquarters was in Boise until 1999 when it moved to Pittsburgh, the home of H.J. Heinz Co. Kraft bought Heinz Co. in 2015.

Ore-Ida founders were farm boys reared in Nampa and Vale

The Grigg brothers grew up on a small cattle and dairy farm in Nampa and in 1935 moved with their family to Vale, Oregon, 16 miles west of Ontario.

After getting married, Nephi Grigg went to work at the Boise Cascade sawmill in Emmett. A few years later, back in Vale, he and his brother formed Grigg Brothers Produce. Among their customers for fresh sweet corn was Joe Albertson, who was managing a Safeway store in Emmett.

They took over a cold-storage locker in Ontario in 1950 after the California produce company that operated it went bankrupt. They began selling frozen french fries, a process perfected by the Simplot company in 1946. Previous attempts to freeze potatoes had turned them black or left them as mush.

Ore-Ida was founded in 1952, a year before Tater Tots were invented to find a use for french fry scraps, which until then had been given away as animal feed. Tater Tots were originally made by pushing potato scraps mixed with flour and seasonings through holes cut in plywood.

The product had its coming-out party in 1954 at the National Potato Convention held at a swanky Miami Beach hotel, The Fountainbleu. Before breakfast one morning, Nephi Grigg carried a 15-pound bag of frozen Tater Tots into the hotel’s kitchen. He talked the head chef into cooking them, arranging them on small saucers and placing them on each of the white linen-dressed tables.

“These were all gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail,” Grigg wrote 35 years later.

Simplot to provide

Ore-Ida with several potato products

Under its deal with Ore-Ida, Simplot will exclusively supply the company with Tater Tots, various cuts of french fries, hash browns and other Ore-Ida products, Jordan said. The agreement expands Simplot’s processing and distribution capabilities and adds a number of job opportunities at the Ontario plant, which is close to one of Simplot’s largest potato processing plants in Caldwell and its headquarters in Boise.

Simplot will also supply potatoes for Ore-Ida products beginning with the 2023-24 growing seasons, the companies said.

Simplot will continue to produce Tater Gems, its answer to the Tater Tot. They’re sold almost exclusively to restaurants, schools and other institutional food service operations, although they were once sold to the public in unmarked bags when Simplot operated a small store at its former Swiss Village cheese factory in Nampa.

“This facility only increases our production and distribution capabilities and enables us to bring our processing expertise to a well-known retail brand while furthering our offerings to regional growers and customers,” Jordan said.

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