National Potato Chip Day is March 14th. That is a day I can really get behind! But if I don’t control myself, it could turn the tables and get a “behind” on me. So I usually eat some of the healthier alternatives available now. But some days the thought of those Jays can only be satisfied with the real deal.
Saratoga Springs, NY resident, George Crum, is often considered the daddy of potato chips. In 1853 he is thought to have been the first to slice them in the thin fashion that we call chips today. But Jays was one of the first commercial brands to catch on in a big way, and for a long time it “owned” the Chicago and Midwest markets. And since it’s Throwback Thursday, I decided to take a walk down memory lane.
Starting in 1927 Leonard Japp sold potato chips from an old jalopy truck around the Windy City. Most of his product went to Al Capone's speakeasies, a burgeoning business during prohibition-era Chicago. Japp’s business tanked after the great stock market crash of 1929, but was resurrected in the 1930’s when he partnered with George Johnson and began selling to small corner grocery stores throughout the Chicago area. Their operation expanded after purchasing an automatic potato chip maker and they opened their first factory not far from the old stockyards. The dueling aromas permeating the air must have been interesting!
During World War II potato chips were the only dehydrated and ready to eat vegetable, so that industry was labeled as essential, and as the demand for chips grew, so did the newly named “Jays” brand.
By the 1950’s Jay’s slogan "Can't Stop Eating 'Em" helped to make the brand a household name throughout much of the Midwest. Their full-blown ad campaign catapulted them to the #1 slot in the Chicago chip market, and they moved to their final home in the Cottage Grove Heights neighborhood, near to the historic Pullman district, America’s first planned industrial community.
By this time Japp’s savvy wife, Eugenia, had been placing recipes on Jay’s chip packages for some time. The recipes were intended to show how to use Jay’s chips to stretch grocery dollars. They were a huge hit! You’ve probably eaten Mrs. Japp’s most famous creation, tuna casserole topped with crushed chips.
Leonarad Japp Jr. succeeded his father as president of Jays, and when mergers and acquisitions were all the rage in the mid-1980’s, and health concerns about fat intake became prevalent, he sold the brand to Borden’s. It floundered during Borden’s ownership and facility infrastructure was neglected, so Japp Jr. bought it back in the 1990’s. But Frito-Lay had captured too much market share for Jays to compete. The brand ultimately filed for bankruptcy. It was bought by Snyder’s of Hanover in 2007.
I can still remember the taste of those delightfully salty and crunchy chips and their special aroma. Our sense of smell is considered one of the most powerful memory triggers. Whole towns and neighborhoods have been known for their own special scents of chocolate, breads, or whatever is produced within them.
The plant that had once helped define a South Side Chicago neighborhood with its mouth-watering aromas was closed in 2007.
The Jays brand lives on as a member of the Snyder’s family and is produced in Indiana. But for those of us who came of age in the mid-20th century, Jays will always belong to Chicago.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Easy Weekly Meals