Chapter 1 | Digging up Idaho Steel’s Past in Potatoes | Book
A world without potatoes would be a world without Idaho Steel. From its humble beginnings in 1918 as a small sheet metal shop located in downtown Idaho Falls, to its powerhouse status known around the world today, Idaho Steel did not become the leader in potato processing equipment overnight.
World War II
Back in the early days, the fresh potato industry reigned supreme as families prepared raw potatoes from scratch at home. A dinnertime food staple, potatoes were scrubbed, peeled, and cooked for consumption next to the main course.
World War II spurred the change to this way of life and cultivated a demand for low-cost foods that could be stored and shipped easily to America’s military fighting overseas. Troops needed food, and experimental efforts to dehydrate vegetables of many kinds as outlined in a USDA report from 1953 titled “Preliminary Planning for Vegetable Dehydration” proved potatoes were a popular choice.
Both troops and civilians consumed dry vegetable products in the form of condiments, soup stock, flour, granules, and other specialty items.
“Mr. Simplot started around 1941, making dehydrated onions in our Caldwell facility that he built,” said Ken Anderson, director of technical engineering at Boise-based J.R. Simplot. “That was the first manufacturing plant,” he added.
J.R. Simplot and many others found a way to meet the demand for convenient food items, and potato processing was born.
According the report, by 1951 “the vegetable dehydration industry produced an estimated 50 million pounds of dry product, 60 percent of which was dehydrated potato products.”
Idaho Steel was positioned to build these processing lines, and the focus of the company changed. As the years went by, Idaho Steel developed expertise in stainless steel fabrication and machining.
Boom of the Flake Industry
The process of turning wet potatoes into dry flakes took a number of years to perfect.
“Drum drying of potatoes developed actually by a team of people that the US government kind of sponsored,” says Delynn Bradshaw, owner of Idaho Steel.
“They wanted to be able to make food for the military. And so, one of those guys was Miles Willard who eventually got a patent for the process and became very wealthy for that.”
After many attempts to perfect the drying process, Miles Willard Jr., a well-known businessman in Idaho Falls, along with partner James Cording Jr. applied for the patent “Drum Drying of Cooked Mashed Potatoes” in the year 1954. The dehydration process involved using cooked, mashed potatoes applied to heated rolls in a paper-like sheet of mash that was then dried to produce flakes. With success, an industry was born.
Drew Facer, President and CEO of Idahoan Foods, explains the origins of many dehydration plants built during the mid-century were the result of farmers who were looking for a way to use their smaller potatoes.
“The quality of the potato was good. It was just too small to really be sold into retail or into food service,” he explains.
Over the years, the use of dehydrated potatoes including potato flakes and potato granules trickled into the snack foods category with the use of reconstituted potato flakes. These potato chip-like snacks were introduced as “crisps” and soon, the well-known Pringles chip was born.
French Fry and Co-Product
During the 1950s, a car culture came of age in the US, giving rise to the drive-in restaurants, with places like McDonalds lining the interstates. People craved tasty foods with an air of convenience. As a result, French fries and hamburgers grew in popularity. Potato suppliers like Simplot, McCain, Lamb Weston, and Cavendish began to process French fries and Idaho Steel grew into this industry as well.
The process produced off-grade slivers and nubbins that processors working with Idaho Steel developed into tots, patties, and rounds. The waste not, want not mentality of the post-war years helped make these convenience foods a popular choice in the frozen food aisles—and customers ate them up!
These early pioneers of the potato processing industry were “smart farm kids” with an agricultural background. Idaho Steel developed under this demand, and added brains and muscle to this mix to create and improve the process and lines.
Much of this development began under the watchful eye of founders Don Lortz and his father William Carl Lortz, who owned Idaho Steel from 1918 until 1991.
“I thought he was a wonderful boss,” said Bruce Ball, retired employee who worked for Idaho Steel for 40 years.
“One of the things that impressed me was every morning he would go out and talk to every person in the shop and compliment them on the work they’d done and encourage them,” he said.
It wasn’t until the early nineties that Don asked Lynn Bradshaw, a client of the company, if he had any interest in buying the business.