Billionaire made fortune in frozen potatoes

Special to The Times

J.R. Simplot, whose lifetime fascination with the potato helped change the nation’s eating habits and made him a billionaire, died Sunday. He was 99.

Simplot, who in his prime drove around Idaho in a Lincoln Continental with the license plate “Mr. Spud,” died at his Boise home, apparently of natural causes, according to the Ada County coroner’s office.

The son of a farmer, Simplot began building his fortune while barely a teenager, finding new ways to bring potatoes and other vegetables to market. His efforts to perfect the frozen French fry accelerated the growth of the fast-food industry, analysts said, and made him the world’s largest supplier of frozen potatoes.


Decades later, Simplot built another fortune when he took an unusual turn and became an early and major shareholder in Micron Technology, a Boise computer chip maker.

But it was root vegetables that lifted Simplot out of poverty.

Beginning at 14, when he left his family home, Simplot grew, harvested, sorted and eventually figured out a way to dry potatoes as well as onions and other vegetables -- products that would feed American troops in World War II and make Simplot wealthy.

Then, in his most lucrative vegetable venture, a Simplot company scientist found a way to freeze potatoes without turning them to mush.

This process made the already popular French fry so cheap and plentiful that, for better or worse, it became a staple on fast-food and other restaurant menus.

Simplot’s sale of frozen fries to McDonald’s and other chains accelerated the growth of the fast-food industry and changed the nation’s eating habits, according to Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” (2001).

“Americans have long consumed more potatoes than any other food except dairy products and wheat flour,” said Schlosser, who called Simplot “America’s great potato baron.”


By 2006, J.R. Simplot and family ranked No. 80 on Forbes magazine’s list of America’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion.

John Richard Simplot -- known as J.R. or Jack -- was born Jan. 4, 1909, in Dubuque, Iowa. Not long after he was born, his father moved his family west, eventually settling near Declo, Idaho.

He quit school, left home at 14 and showed an early skill at making money. While still a young man, he made a tidy profit in the hog business before moving on to farming and planting potatoes, beans, hay and grain.

Working with another farmer, he developed an electric potato sorter and, after winning the rights to it in a coin flip, Simplot went into the potato sorting business. He traveled from farm to farm, hooking up the machine to the closest light socket, and soon began building cellars to store potatoes. By the time the Depression hit in 1929, Simplot was set up to supply people with a source of cheap nutrition. Within a decade, Simplot operated 33 potato warehouses in Idaho and Oregon.

But he didn’t make his first serious money until he got into the business of drying vegetables.

When the United States entered World War II, America needed dried onions to feed the troops on the war front, and Simplot jumped into the business “in a big way.” He built plants around the country to dry onions and, later, potatoes. By the end of the war, he had supplied tens of millions of pounds of potatoes to the armed forces.


But Simplot’s greatest enterprise was perfecting and distributing the frozen potato.

In 1965, Simplot capitalized on his business relationship with Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corp. Kroc’s fast-food operation had grown so big that he was struggling to supply enough French fries to go with McDonald’s hamburgers.

Simplot, who provided McDonald’s with fresh Idaho russet potatoes except during the summer months, had assigned one of his chemists to work on a method to freeze potatoes without compromising flavor or texture. When customers couldn’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen French fries, Simplot quickly boosted production of frozen fries and became the main supplier of potatoes to McDonald’s.

“That’s what made me,” the plain-spoken Simplot once said. “I got McDonald’s to use my frozen French fries.”

Other fast-food chains, including Wendy’s, Burger King and Jack in the Box, soon began buying frozen French fries from Simplot.

By the late 1960s, Simplot’s various enterprises had made their creator a prominent fixture in American industry. He was Idaho’s biggest cattle-grower and employer. He dried and froze more potatoes than anyone.

He owned processing plants, fertilizer plants, mining operations and other enterprises in 36 states, Canada and elsewhere. And he owned a lot of land.


In 1980, Simplot took a surprising turn when he decided to invest in a start-up company called Micron Technology, helping it to become one of the world’s biggest semiconductor companies.

Occasionally, Simplot got himself into trouble. In 1978, in what Fortune magazine later called “one of the largest scandals ever to hit the commodity market,” Simplot paid a $50,000 fine and was barred from trading for six years after he was accused of manipulating Maine potato futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange in 1976. And in 1977, he pleaded no contest to federal charges that he had failed to report income and had claimed false personal and family deductions; he paid two $20,000 fines.

Survivors include his wife, Esther, two sons and a daughter.