Top 50 Stories: 1929-2008 - J.R. Simplot

A dropout from Declo built an agricultural empire, helping to define Idaho as the spud state.

adutton@idahostatesman.comJuly 1, 2014 

It wasn't until the J.R. Simplot Co. was firmly rooted that the Idaho Statesman devoted barrels of ink to telling its story - and the story of its tenacious, unapologetic founder, Jack Simplot.

Through hundreds of stories, the newspaper wrote a first draft of Simplot's history as it became entwined with Idaho commerce and politics, quoting Simplot executives such as Butch Otter, now Idaho's governor, who at the time was a company executive married to Jack's daughter Gay.

But it started quietly.

Simplot grew up in Idaho and forged a career as a farmer in the 1920s. Seeing more opportunities in food processing, he built an onion plant in Caldwell and a fertilizer plant in Pocatello.

"By 1941, at 32, he was Idaho's largest shipper of onions and potatoes and owned several farms near Burley," said a 1978 profile.

The news of Simplot's success was trumped by other developments, especially the political and military events of World War II - a conflict that only added to demand for Simplot's dehydrated potatoes.

A big turning point came in 1967. Simplot's Caldwell plant boasted the first continuous processing line for frozen french fries in the 1950s. J.R. Simplot had a plan to approach McDonald's about those fries, said David Cuoio, manager of public relations for Simplot Co.

When that meeting happened in 1963, McDonald's President Harry Sonneborn "nearly threw me out," so committed was he to "fresh cuts," Simplot said in a 1986 interview, according to Cuoio. But after founder Ray Kroc decided to try the frozen route, and after the frozen-averse president had retired, Simplot's opportunity knocked.

The companies' research teams eventually got together, leading to an order for 100,000 pounds of newly developed frozen McDonald's fries. The second order was for 1.5 million pounds. They were a hit, Cuoio said.

Kroc was impressed. He invited Simplot, food division chief Leon Jones and both men's wives to the Kroc ranch in Solvang, Calif., Cuoio said.

At the end of the visit in summer 1967, Kroc and Simplot made a handshake deal - no price, no contract - for Simplot to produce McDonald's fries. That momentous handshake doesn't appear to have been reported in the Statesman, but Cuoio heard the tale from several sources.

"It was a big risk, but Simplot held true to his gambler's instincts and took the plunge," Cuoio said.

His company's story continues to unfold. J.R. Simplot Co. makes headlines in the Statesman regularly.

Its founder and visionary, though, has passed on. The Statesman commemorated J.R. Simplot in six pages of special coverage the day after his death at age 99.

"He and the company he founded all but reinvented the humble potato ... (and became) one of the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world," wrote Tim Woodward in a front-page story. "As a philanthropist, he gave so much money to so many Idaho causes that no one was able to keep track of it all."

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