In Idaho, a not-insignificant share of the citizenry is ambivalent about potatoes. Not baked with butter and sour cream, but as their state’s icon.
The skeptics don’t like the “Famous Potatoes” license plate, don’t like being represented by a brown vegetable, don’t like the joking from out-of-state relatives. Seeing a giant lighted potato drop at midnight on New Year’s Eve sends tater haters into social media apoplexy. In their minds, the potato perpetuates the stereotype of backward Idaho rather than the cool Top 10 Place the magazines keep rediscovering. Potato kitsch isn’t hip or funny, for these folks. It’s embarrassing.
But outside of Idaho? No ambivalence. When the Big Idaho Potato truck rolls into Roosters café in Pendleton, Oregon, the wait staff gathers at the window. At a rest area on a bluff above Yakima, Washington, a couple following the potato races over to quiz the potato’s handlers. When a fire alarm empties the Hilton Hotel in Bellevue, Washington, at 3:15 a.m., half-awake guests in pajamas stumble over for selfies with the 28-foot-long potato.
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And for the hundreds of thousands of people who line the route of the Seattle Seafair Torchlight Parade, it’s love at first sight.
“People all over America love it,” says Jessica Coulthard. She should know. She’s in her second year as a Tater Twin, traveling the nation with the Big Idaho Potato to store openings, community events and parades like Seafair.
“It gives you a sense of pride in your state,” one of the potato skeptics confesses after witnessing the Seattle love fest, “hearing everybody say ‘Idaho is great,’ ‘I love Idaho.’”
THE POTATO WHISPERER
Ron Coles is a veteran truck driver with 42 years and 4 million miles under his big cowboy belt buckle. At 67, he was happily retired to Melba when a friend of a friend said the Idaho Potato Commission needed an emergency driver. He filled in on one trip, agreed to a second and then soon found himself, implausibly, on the road to Seattle on July 27, installed as official chauffeur for an 11-foot-wide fiberglass root vegetable on a 48-foot flatbed trailer. He won’t be home again until late September.
He surprised himself by falling in love with the whole traveling spectacle. “I get the five-finger wave now instead of the one-finger wave,” he says, awed by the affirmation that flows to the Big Idaho Potato, the potato state and, by extension, to the potato team. “Everybody smiles. Everybody’s happy.”
Coles spent the past few decades driving for ABF and Reddaway and Fred Meyer in the Northwest, and he knows every truck stop and rest area and restaurant with good truck parking in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. He’s represented Idaho in national truck-driving competitions, and it doesn’t take long in the cab to see that Ron is a potato whisperer, able to coax the potato into and out of places you and I wouldn’t take a U-Haul – navigating narrow Hidden Springs cul de sacs, getting through hotel parking lot gates or parallel-parking the truck, trailer and potato at the Seattle Center right outside the Key Arena.
Once he’s parked the potato, it’s not long before he’s out of the cab, offering to snap cellphone photos for gawking visitors: “Say French fry!”
After years of solitude in a truck cab hauling unremarkable cargo, driving the Big Idaho Potato presented Ron a chance to use his considerable skills to do something completely different, social and fun. “Heavy on the fun,” he says.
He’s been driving the potato just since early July, and so far interactions with other truckers are friendly. “I’m sure there are guys who think ‘Oh, you’re not a real truck driver. You’re just showing off.” He pauses, then adds: “They’re just jealous.”
HOW DO YOU BECOME A TATER TWIN?
The Big Idaho Potato can’t promote Idaho potatoes by itself.
It needs help getting to the NFL Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton, Ohio, or the Kentucky Derby, or even to the Pilot Truck Stop when the fuel’s low. Besides the driver, it takes a team of brand ambassadors to care for all the details: the highway permits, the hotels, plotting the GPS route, finding overnight parking for the potato, the logistics of parades and events and appearances. Oh, and the 24/7 smiles, waves and questions. They pass out instant mashed potatoes, T-shirts, recipes, Spuddy Buddy dolls and respond to all the demands the potato’s adoring public makes on its handlers. (The potato even has superfans who follow the online truck tracker and come meet it, like Anthony J. last week in Dickinson, N.D., as the truck traveled to Ohio).
Jessica and Kaylee Wells are the sixth and seventh people to serve as the potato’s public persona, tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, blogging, sharing photos and videos and inviting people to come on down to the next stop.
The Twins expect to tour at least one more year with the potato.
“The adventure is not over yet,” says Kaylee.
“If they do a European potato,” says Jessica, “I’ll keep going.”
How, you might ask, does one get a job as a Tater Twin?
Jessica and Kaylee were best friends at Mountain View High School, class of 2011. After graduating Boise State (Kaylee) and University of Idaho (Jessica) in 2015, they traveled to Spain to work as au pairs in Barcelona. Fast-forward to 2017, when Jessica was back in Boise job-hunting. She had a degree in education, but was interested in marketing, events and public relations. She saw the posting for the potato job: “It was meant to be.”
Kaylee was working as a travel agent, but ready for a change. Jessica talked her into applying. Not sure that being best friends would help their cause, they didn’t mention it.
Laura Martin, who watches over the potato and the team for Foerstel marketing, put both young women in her stack of finalists when she reviewed her 300 applicants. As she researched their social media accounts, she saw that Kaylee and Jessica were friends. Martin was looking for chemistry, a team that could handle long hours together in a truck cab and long weeks sharing duties on the road. When Jessica and Kaylee heard that, they dubbed themselves the Tater Twins. They got the job.
Their office is the cab of a Kenworth semi, outfitted with Wi-Fi, laptops, printer and mini fridge. Bunk beds serve as storage shelves, chairs, desks and, occasionally, a place for an afternoon nap.
Traveling with the potato truck six months out of the year has taken the Twins around the track at the Indy 500 and into fancy hats and dresses for the Kentucky Derby, and this fall they’re visiting Ohio, Tennessee, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The best part of the job is seeing new places every trip, says Kaylee. Jessica is smitten with Hilton Head, S.C.
“Every town has a different vibe. They all have their own personality and quirks,” says Jessica, a woman who travels with a giant potato for a living.
A BIG IDAHO POTATO STREET PARTY
Spend 48 hours with the Big Idaho Potato and you see how easily people are smitten. It takes just a couple hours parked on a closed street at the Seattle Center awaiting the Torchlight Parade to get caught up in Big Potato mania:
“Is that real?” asks Patrick Leonard of Tacoma.
“What’s your definition of real?” asks Kaylee. “Go taste it.”
“No!” says Leonard. “That’s been driven all over America!”
Kaylee finally owns up: The largest potato ever grown is 11 pounds. This potato is 6 tons.
Leonard says he knew it wasn’t real: “That would be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of potatoes!”
New Zealanders Colin and Shona Smith are on an extended tour of the U.S. “You should bring your potato to New Zealand,” says Shona.
Bryan Swanson of Vienna, Virginia, saw the potato pass his hotel as parade entrants got a motorcycle police escort into town that morning. He wanted a closer look: “Now everybody on my social media knows about it.”
“I want to know how big a fork you need to poke holes in it?” asks Shana Kortright, visiting Seattle with family from Oklahoma. Her mom wonders about the oven it would take to bake it.
The Tater Twins pull out their karaoke machine and soon Seafair volunteer Don Webb of Seattle is belting out “Margaritaville” as a crowd gathers to dance. “Being with the giant potato at the Torchlight Parade brings out the kid in everybody,” Webb said. “I should know. I’m 71.”
Kathi Strasser of Millersville, Maryland, shimmies up to the dancing Spuddy Buddy mascot. “I’d like that job,” she says. “My dream is to be a potato dancer.”
The Sumner, Washington, High School cheerleaders get their pictures with Spuddy Buddy. The yellow-gowned princesses from the Pierce County Daffodil Festival waiting to ride their own parade float stop by and are soon dancing in the Big Idaho Potato Seattle street party.
Jeff Lake is a California teacher visiting Seattle. He grew up in Boise, and sought out the potato at Seafair. “Thank you for being here,” he tells the Twins. A surprising number of people with Idaho roots drop by to say hello and bask in the reflected glow of their home-state potato.
EVERYBODY LOVES A ... POTATO
It’s 9 p.m., and after a day of waiting and preparing, the Big Idaho Potato is in full parade mode. The entire city of Seattle, it seems, is out and greets the potato on its 5-mph journey past the Space Needle and the pop culture museum and through Downtown.
“I love potatoes!”
“That’s not real.”
“Does the farmer know you’re here?”
“Where’s the butter?”
Kaylee has 15 relatives in Washington for a family reunion, and for the night they are deputized into the potato posse. Jacob Wessel waves from inside the Spuddy Buddy costume, and Megan Havens, who has come from Winnipeg, Canada, carries a big stuffed Spuddy Buddy along the route, high-fiving the crowd with the toy’s big hand. It’s not clear who is having the most fun.
A NATION OF POTATO FANS
No one – not Foerstel, not the Evans, Hardy & Young ad agency, not the Potato Commission – foresaw this potato mania. The Big Idaho Potato started in 2012 as a one-year promotion to celebrate the commission’s 75th anniversary. Then came the TV ads with Farmer Mark and his droopy-eared hound in their old Studebaker pickup chasing the Big Potato, urging Americans to tell the potato “It’s time to come home.” No one planned it out. They didn’t expect such silliness to become a thing, to last seven years, to turn into Americana chic.
“That’s just the way it evolved,” said Sue Kennedy, who handles the Potato Commission account for Evans, Hardy & Young. Now that Farmer Mark Coombs also does commercials for Lamb-Weston’s Idaho French fries, its impact and reach is magnified. “You can’t ignore the Idaho Potato brand these days.”
A sign on the Big Potato Truck invites people to call and report the potato’s location, and when they call they get Farmer Mark’s voice-mail greeting. Martin plays me messages from potato spotters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Pensacola, Florida.
“Hey Mark,” says a caller from Memphis, “I’m walking to work and I’ve got my hands on the spud right now at the Staybridge Suites Hotel.” He tells Farmer Mark it’s the coolest thing he’s seen since the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.
“Take care man. Later, tater.”