John Richard Simplot (January 4, 1909 – May 25, 2008), America’s great potato baron, was the billionaire founder of his namesake company, which is with interests in food, fertilizer, turf, horticulture, and cattle feeding.
Simplot was born in Iowa in 1909. A year later, his family left Iowa and eventually settled in Idaho. At the age of 14, the eighth-grade student rebelled against his father, dropped out of school, and left home. He found work at a potato warehouse and sorted potatoes there.
The favorable growing environment and good policy made Idaho an ideal setting for growing Russet Burbank potatoes. In 1929, Simplot started his first production company. Within a decade, he was the largest shipper of potatoes in the West. In 1941, Simplot set up his dehydration plant, reportedly supplied one-third of the dried potatoes and onions consumed by American troops during World War II.
After the War, the sales of refrigerators, freezers, and other kitchen appliances soared and the 1950s soon became “the Golden Age of Food Processing,”. J. R. Simplot started selling frozen french fries in 1953, yet frustratingly found its appeal for the busy homemakers is limited since the fries tasted best when heated in hot oil, although precooked. He needed to find institutional customers, restaurant owners to recognize its tremendous labor-saving benefits.
In 1965, J. R. Simplot met with Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder. Kroc found it’s appealing to switch to frozen french fries to ensure uniformity and cut labor costs since a three-month unavailable of Russet potato leads to the problem in consistency and quality of the fries. And the Russet Burbank, with its large size and high starch content, was the perfect potato for frying. The following year Simplot’s frozen french fries begin to be sold by Mcdonald’s. The reduced cost made french fries one of the most profitable items on the menu. Simplot quickly became the major supplier of french fries to McDonald’s.
Simplot also sold his frozen fries to other restaurant chains, accelerating the growth of the fast-food industry and changing the nation’s eating habits. French fries have become the most widely sold foodservice item in the United States.
Today Simplot’s namesake company sells one-third of the French fries sold in the United States to companies including the Golden Arches, Burger King, Yum! Brands’ KFC, and Wendy’s. The Simplot plant runs twenty-four hours a day, turning potatoes into french fries. It processes about a million pounds of potatoes a day.