New festival in Ontario will honor the Tater Tot

Freshly fried Tater Tots from Mal’s Diner in Vale. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

ONTARIO – An iconic potato product – the tot – will get the spotlight at a new event in Ontario.

In 1952, two industrious brothers, Nephi and Golden Grigg, mortgaged their homes to raise enough money to bid for a decrepit frozen food factory in Ontario. The brothers and their investors, with a bid of $500,000, became the new owners of a factory that Nephi Grigg described in his 1985 memoir as having sand blown up against the doors that “was so deep, it was actually spilling through the keyholes.”

Little did the brothers know that their newly established and humble operation would evolve into the frozen food processing giant known as Ore-Ida.

The Grigg brothers also invented one of American’s most iconic foods after they couldn’t decide what to do with all the potato scraps left over from their French fry production.

Instead of trashing the leftover potatoes, the brothers decided to chop them, mix them with flour and seasoning and feed them through a potato masher. In 1956, the Tater Tot was born.

In 1965, H.J. Heinz Company purchased Ore-Ida and began establishing a new sales and marketing organization. Annual sales had reached more than $30 million. 

Nephi Grigg died in 1995, and Golden Grigg died in 1991.

To honor their entrepreneurial spirit, Revitalize Ontario, an organization dedicated to promoting a prosperous downtown, is working on a new event: the 2020 Tater Tot Festival. It will be formally introduced and promoted at the Malheur County Fair this August, according to Charlotte Fugate, Revitalize Ontario president.

The city recently backed the festival, awarding a $3,800 grant that will be used to fund marketing that includes T-shirts and 10,000 pencils bearing the new festival’s logo. The total promotional budget for the festival is $4,812. 

“We want to promote our city,” Fugate said. “We want to encourage entrepreneurial spirit.”

“To let our kids know that when they grow up they can invent something too… there’s opportunity out there for all kinds of stuff,” she said.  

Fugate said the Tater Tot Festival will be family-oriented and fun-filled, with a variety of events planned. It will feature relay races, exotic food vendors and a carnival style Ferris wheel. Also planned are a Tater Tot eating contest and a Tater Tot-themed play written and performed by local children, telling the story of the iconic crunchy, fried snack.

Also, Fugate said, there will be a Tater Tot Festival king and queen.

Reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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