The History of the Potato Chip
Leonard Japp’s popular creation has deep roots in Chicago history
MARCH 31, 2015|
As I grew up, Jays faded into a childhood memory. My commutes to Hammond, IN when I went to Purdue Calumet rekindled my love for Jays. I would pass by their factory near I-94 south. On cold January days like today, the wind would blow down plumes of white smoke with the sweet smell of freshly cooking potato chips onto the expressway,” writes Park Ridge “Yelper” Mike O. about his unfaltering loyalty to Jays snack products.
The Jays Foods potato chip factory once stood in the Rosemoor neighborhood on 99th Street, but it extended its reach as far as the expressway with its strong smell of delicious grease. With a golden physique, crunchy crackle, and the slogan “You can’t stop eating ‘em,” the potato chips of snack manufacturer Jays Foods have been deliciously appealing to the Midwest since 1927. However, what most distinguishes Jays is the enduring nostalgia nestled in the hearts of Chicagoans, especially those who lived close to the 99th Street South Side factory.
Closed in 2007, when Jays was sold to the food distributor Snyder’s, the factory is surrounded not just by fond memories but also by intriguing history. In 1927, after a series of odd jobs, including prizefighter and cemetery plot salesman, Minnesotan Leonard Japp turned to snack food. He created the modern-day Jays potato chip by frying potatoes in oil rather than lard, making the taste we have come to recognize: thin, crunchy, and deep-fried.
The story of how Japp went from street peddler to factory owner includes none other than Al Capone, who encouraged Japp to open factories and mass-produce his snacks for Capone’s speakeasies. The potato chip entered the trade about a year later, when Capone urged Japp to make them after tasting them in Sarasota, New York, where potato chips were first invented.
In keeping with the the TV dinner trend of the age, Mrs. Japp herself included her dinner recipes, which naturally included potato chips as an ingredient, on the back of every bag. Originally named “Mrs. Japp’s Chips” for Japp’s wife, the name was changed to Jays in 1941 due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.
Despite a rocky ride full of ups and downs, Japp saw great success with his Chicago business, which provided the craved snack throughout the Midwest. His family business’s prosperity was indicative of the need for an on-the-go snack that had not yet been introduced to the market before the late 1920s. After a solid start, Japp almost lost everything in the stock market crash and Depression, but he fortuitously won it all back on a lucky racehorse. Later on, President Kennedy invited Mr. Japp to lead a seminar in the Soviet Union on his ready-to-eat potato chips.
In 1986, beaten by bigger brands, the Japp family resigned themselves to moving on and sold their family business to Borden Inc. Years later, the family bought back their family name with the hope of returning to greasy glory, only to realize they were entering a market defined by trans-fat naysayers and the new “organic” trend. In the mid-90s, Jays fell once more into decline and finally went bankrupt in 2004. It is now owned by Snyder’s and produces in small quantities, yet remains true to only selling in the Midwest.
Japp died in 2000 at ninety-six. Remembered as a kind boss, he was said to have known everyone in his South Side factory by name, with employees remaining by his side for more than thirty years. The city knew him as the classic American entrepreneur, one of Chicago’s oldest and favorite relics from bygone times.
Even though the factory has left the South Side, the name lives on through oral histories of the good vibes and good smells when passing by—not to mention through Snyder’s online ordering site.
“They used to give us pencils, I remember,” says Lee Bey, Associate Director of Special Projects at the Arts Incubator, as he remembers his own class trips to the factory. “When we were coming home, you knew it, you could smell it on the expressway.”
Upwards of 500 jobs were lost when the factory closed its doors in 2007, but Chicago’s residents haven’t lost their memories of when those doors were open. As Bey recounts, “One of the things that marks some of Chicago’s areas are the smells, especially the South Side. And Jays was one of them. You definitely knew you were in the Southeast because of Jays.” Whether they reminisce about school field trips or the commute home, esteem for Leonard Japp or cravings for his potato chips, South Side residents have a special place in their hearts, and stomachs, for Jays.