Potato king J.R. Simplot, U.S. fry innovator, dies

BOISE, Idaho Mon May 26, 2008 11:22am EDT

French fries are served in a file photo. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

French fries are served in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

BOISE, Idaho (Reuters) - J.R. Simplot, the billionaire founder of the Boise, Idaho-based agriculture business that bears his name and who helped make French fries a staple of the American diet and waistline, died on Sunday at the age of 99, officials said.

After pioneering the first commercial frozen French fry in the late 1940s, Simplot eventually became a major supplier of Idaho potatoes to McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. His privately held company, where he was chairman emeritus, reported $3.3 billion in sales in 2006.

An official at the Ada County Coroner's office said Simplot died at home on Sunday morning of natural causes.

Born John Richard Simplot in Dubuque, Iowa in 1909, he left school at the age of 14 to work in the agriculture storage and distribution business. He started his first produce company in 1929, and eventually became a major supplier of dehydrated potatoes to the U.S. military during World War II.

In the late 1940s, Simplot's researchers began experimenting with frozen potato products. His company began producing frozen French fries in Idaho in 1946 and the business thrived with the spread of freezers into American homes.

Simplot's most well-known business venture began with a handshake. In 1967, Simplot and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc shook hands and agreed the Simplot Company would provide frozen French fries to the expanding fast-food chain.

The company expanded to several potato processing plants in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and eventually Australia and China. It now grows and processes many other vegetables.

The postwar spread of processed American fast food has had a significant impact on the nation's health, with the popularity of such food contributing to an obesity epidemic.

The Simplot company also operates a feedlot business, with operations in Idaho and Washington turning out about 400,000 head of cattle per year.

The company owns and operates fertilizer manufacturing plants in Idaho, and a Simplot company called Grower Solutions has about 70 stores selling agricultural products in the West.

In 2001, the plain-spoken businessman told Esquire Magazine luck had nothing to do with his success. "Work honestly and build, build, build. That's all I can tell you," he said.

In 1973 Simplot retired from his company, but remained chairman of the board. He stepped down from that post in 1994 after his children Gay, Don and Scott were named to the board of directors, but retained the title of chairman emeritus.

In 1980, he provided seed money to a small Boise-based computer chip manufacturer, Micron Technology. Micron is now one of Idaho's largest publicly traded companies.

A well-known figure in Boise, Simplot was often seen driving through town in a Lincoln Town Car with license plates that read "MR SPUD."

In an interview for the company in 1992, Simplot said he didn't care how he would be remembered. "Oh hell, I don't care what they say about me," Simplot said. "I'm not a publicity hound."

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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