Tater Tot Festival draws crowds to downtown Ontario

Mary Fullmer digs into a breakfast tot biscuit made by Margaret Keithley, which won the Tater Tot cooking contest. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

ONTARIO – The first annual Tater Tot Festival held by Revitalize Ontario was a success, organizers say, despite its challenges. 

Chief among these was Covid, which delayed the festival’s opening by a year. 

There was also windy weather on the second day of the festival, which forced organizers to shut down about four hours early. 

But organizers were sunny about the festival’s overarching performance, and said the problems, characteristic of a first-time event, would be worked out in future years. 

“People drove for miles to have Tater Tots,” said Charlotte Fugate, president of Revitalize Ontario.

Revitalize Ontario volunteer Emily Olson said she had met visitors from Nampa, the Oregon coast and California. 

Jesse Asoau, branding director for the Go Agency, which partnered with Revitalize Ontario to host the event, said that his background had inspired his support for the project. 

“Having come from an old town myself, seeing how they’re revitalizing Ontario as a whole, structurally and spiritually and socially,” he said. “I really feel everyone’s been inside for so long, it’s a really good time to come together at this stage.” 

The festival featured a main stage with live and recorded music, a “carnival boardwalk” where local businesses set up booths with games, and a Tater Tot eating contest where competitors spent two minutes scarfing down as many tots as they could. 

Kraft-Heinz had a recruitment booth set up for its Ontario plant. The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, a car shaped like a hot dog, also participated, and one of its crew won the tot-eating contest. 

Visitors could try Tater Tot-themed recipes from a smattering of food trucks, including tot tacos and tot crepes. 

A highlight came on Saturday morning, when the six finalists of the Tater Tot Cook Off presented their recipes for taste testing by the crowd. 

Each selection sat cradled in a silver warming tin. The tots had been artfully fried, smashed, and reshaped into the six dishes: totchos, jalapeño popper tot casserole, twice-baked tot cups, breakfast tot biscuits, steak bomb tot waffles and ranch tots. 

A line quickly formed to sample the dishes, with a full plate costing $5. Organizers ran out within 30 minutes.

“I like these tots,” said Sharon Grigg, one of the first to get a plate. “We always bake ours, but these are obviously deep fried.”

“That’s actually pretty good – I don’t even mind the Cheez Whiz,” said Steve Grigg regarding the steak bomb tot waffle. 

Mary Fullmer was a fan of the twice-baked tot cups, which came with a jalapeño pepper on top. 

“You just have to take it off,” she said, explaining that she doesn’t like hot things. “It still was crisp and the cheese made it all yummy, and the bacon was the perfect salty touch.” 

Everyone who sampled the tots got two votes for their favorite recipes. 

In the end, Margaret Keithley’s breakfast tot biscuits won her a traveling trophy and a bag of fresh tots. 

The Griggs were in town from Salt Lake City, Utah. Steve Grigg’s father, Nephi Grigg, invented the Tater Tot with his brother, Golden, and Steve had been invited to the festival to say a few words.

“They just asked me as a tie from the past to the present because Ontario’s the only plant that makes tots,” Grigg said. “I think it was just a novelty to have someone from the Tater Tot family to be here.”

Grigg said that since before the pandemic, he’s been working to make sure his father and uncle’s legacy is remembered as part of American history. 

He said that he had contacted the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to see about displaying the original “holey board” – the mold with which the first Tater Tots were made. 

Grigg said that his family’s story was emblematic of American history “because they started in the Depression. I mean they were so poor the Great Depression came and went and they didn’t even know it. I think it’s indicative of the time of the 50s. Postwar I think there was this sense of rebirth in the nation.” 

Grigg said that coming from a Depression family, his father and uncle had been loath to see their potato scraps go to waste, and that this impulse is what led them to form the scraps into tots.

Grigg said that for him, the most fun part of the Tater Tot Festival was coming home to Ontario. He was raised in Ontario till the age of 15, but after his father sold Ore-Ida to Kraft-Heinz, he became mission president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Scotland. 

Grigg said that he, too, was pleased with how the event had gone, and only hoped for it to get bigger in the future, with Ontario becoming a true destination for tot-lovers everywhere.

“I think the event should be just like this,” Grigg said. “This is probably a pretty good turnout.” 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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