Tater Tots Were Introduced To The Public In A Super Sneaky Way

To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. That's how we feel about tater tots — which foodies in New Zealand call potato gems, pom-poms, and hash bites. In Canada, they're "spud puppies," and British foodies call them "oven crunchies." Folks all around the world love tots, but before the food attained its global fanbase, the main ingredient in its public debut was stealth.

Tater tots were invented by brothers Francis Nephi and Golden Grigg, a pair of Idaho farmers who took over a flash-freezing factory in Ontario, Oregon in 1949. The Idaho to Oregon shift inspired the brand name Ore-Ida. This purchase set the brothers back $500,000 dollars, which is more than $4.5 million today after adjusting for inflation. The investment was sound, as the brand has remained highly successful and saw roughly $500 million in sales in 2022 alone. 

In 1954, the brothers headed to the National Potato Convention at Fontainebleau, a resort on Miami Beach. Rather than focusing on the convention judges, the brothers' target audience was future consumers — so they bribed the hotel's head chef to serve 15 pounds of tots at breakfast. In a dining room adorned with linen tablecloths and crystal chandeliers, saucer dishes full of tots were placed on each table. As Francis Nephi recounted in his personal essay known as "History of the Tot", "These were all gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail," via Eater.

Breaking rules and fueling foodies

While their debut may have been super sneaky, the American public hardly needed convincing to love tater tots once they got a taste. The product was released to grocery stores in 1956 and found immediate success within the frozen food renaissance. Tater tots were also a legendary exercise in food-waste elimination, emblematic of the mindset of the post-Depression Era. The Griggs brothers invented tots in the first place to repurpose the pieces of potato left behind after slicing their fries. The advent of tots was especially momentous for the Griggs brothers' own Mormon community, which was embarking on a large-scale culinary shift toward mainstream American foods and creating their own spinoff dishes at the same time.

In the 1970s, Ore-Ida tested out a few different tot flavors, like bacon, onion, and cheese, but the classic potato flavor reigned supreme. Today, the culinary influence of tater tots has extended far beyond the freezer aisle. Major fast food chains like Sonic and Burger King peddle (or used to peddle) tater tots, and countless bar menus tote snacks like tater kegs and "totchos." Tater tot hotdish casserole has emerged as a comfort food classic in Midwestern kitchens, and February 2 is even National Tater Tot Day — none of which would be possible without a little rule-breaking by the Griggs brothers. As Francis Nephi once challenged, "Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it," via Oregon Public Broadcasting.