Oregon's Food Innovation Legacy

From tater tots to Tofurky, Oregon invents tasty futures.

By Marty Patail and Marco España November 1, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Consider the tater tot, an Oregon original

Image: Nomad

Brothers Nephi and Golden Grigg thought they had a great idea to make some extra money. They had scraped together $150,000 for a foreclosed freeze-drying plant in the village of Ontario, Oregon, near the Idaho border, to make french fries. But the process left behind lots of potato scraps, so why not mush them into tiny logs and sell them? At the very least, cows could eat them. 

When the golden cylinders hit the market in 1953, however, an inspired name—the “Tater Tot”—helped turn the Griggs’ farm-feed cost-saver into a snacking revolution. By 1964, the Griggs’ company, Ore-Ida, was worth more than $233 million in 2013 dollars, and accounted for 25 percent of the frozen potato market nationwide. Today, corner pubs and school cafeterias eat up about 70 million pounds of tots per year. 

The story of the tot is but one entry in the annals of the state’s food innovation. In one corner, companies like Oregon Freeze Dry, Kerr Concentrates, and Oregon Spice create ingredients for other large corporations. In another corner, there’s your neighbor, roasting her own coffee beans or fermenting a little something to sell at the farmers market.  

“What’s happening here sets us apart from the rest of the country,” says Linda Wechsler of the Institute of Food Technologists, an idea-sharing forum for food scientists across the state. 

Whether they come from a university lab or someone’s basement, food ideas are more valuable than ever, as growing markets and climate change press upon the agriculture industry and consumers demand higher quality, fresher foods, and fewer additives. So as much as Portland’s upstart restaurant scene is coveted, Oregon’s homegrown laboratory for concepts both delicious and lucrative might prove far more influential in the long run when it comes to how the world eats.

They Call her the “Food Doctor.” And like a medical doctor, Sarah Masoni’s time costs: she charges $110 for a one-hour consultation. Sometimes it’s a local guy who wants to bottle his barbecue sauce. Other times, a national corporation needs a shelf-life study for a product already in supermarket aisles. 

Masoni is a product and process developer for the Food Innovation Center, a Portland-based component of Oregon State University’s prestigious food science program. She helps clients with everything from food safety to production to distribution and marketing. 

Long before joining the FIC, Masoni cut her teeth on the Gardenburger, another Oregon first. In 1981, restaurateur Paul Wenner found a use for leftover veggies and rice pilaf at his Gresham establishment, the Gardenhouse. Almost overnight, his “Garden Loaf Sandwich” accounted for half of the restaurant’s orders. Masoni, trained in “savory formulation,” helped fine-tune the Gardenburger into a mixture of oats, cheese, mushrooms, and rice. 

These days, Masoni spends her days trying to turn raw ideas into the next food hit. She recently worked with a Hood River orchard to make “pear puffs” with the help of a USDA grant and fielded a call from an ice cream maker in South Carolina who wanted to tap into Portland’s mastery of  “ice cream development.” That kind of collaboration is key to a sector that employs hundreds of food scientists. “Academics are working with private businesses,” says Tom Gillpatrick, a professor in Portland State’s food retail program. “It’s very dynamic.” 

Flops are inevitable, of course. But every fresh concept could become another maraschino cherry (perfected at Oregon State) or marionberry (ditto) or Pok Pok drinking vinegar (now distributed nationally). To see the full potential of the right food idea at the right time, visit the Hood River base of Tofurky, which this year opened up a brand-new 33,000-square-foot factory.

Seth Tibbott founded Turtle Island Foods in 1980, originally selling only tempeh products—including a spiced “sausage” he called Temperoni—to a handful of co-ops in Portland. “There was one company selling tempeh in the natural-food stores in Portland. I thought I could make a better product,” he says. But after creating a turkey-inspired tofu loaf, Tibbott realized there was a much larger niche to fill. Soon after this breakthrough, Tibbott’s tiny operation began selling 300,000 tofu birds a year. 

It’s a wild ride that takes an idea from the creators’ mind to the freezer aisle, but for Oregonians with an appetite for invention, those roller-coaster tracks are firmly in place. As tater tot forefather Nephi Grigg was fond of saying, “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it.”

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