Friday, July 30, 2010

Putting The “Famous” In Potatoes

Here is another example of why it takes more than a good product or good destination or facility or event to be successful.  It takes equally good marketing.

The year I was born, my Uncle Louie (the Idaho rancher who chewed Bull Durham) tacked up his ‘48 license plates on the barn and then gave them to me when I went away to college.1948

They not only had “Famous Potatoes” along the bottom as they do today but unique that year they had a baked potato in the center, foil, cut open with a big pad of butter on top.

It wasn’t the potato itself that became famous.  Like most products, it became famous because of brilliant marketing.  The same reason “build it and they will come” is a myth.

On my trip, I read a book by Randy Stapilus entitled It Happened In Idaho and read for the first time how the potatoes there became famous. Much of this information is also online in Aristocrat in Burlap by James Davis.

potato region of Idaho is fairly small, running down the eastern edge from the higher elevations of Ashton and the Teton Valley near where I was raised, down to Pocatello.  Much more of the state is covered in range land, huge mountains, lakes and forests.

First planted in Idaho by missionary Henry Spaulding, potatoes by 1917 were being raised by Joe Marshall and a few farmers in the sliver of Eastern Idaho lava flow dissected by the Snake River plain.  They had 25,000 or so acres in potatoes then compared to 320,000 in 2009.

Marshall knew the attributes that made potatoes grown in Idaho better, e.g. larger, better shaped, less moisture, better texture, looked better on the plate, etc.  But at the time they were still just mixed in with inferior potatoes grown elsewhere and brought the same price.

The big brokers then were in Chicago and on a trip there, Marshall stopped into one of Dario Tofanetti’s restaurants located in the financial district (I find spellings also with an “e”.)  He demonstrated the unique attributes of the Idaho potato, persuaded the chefs there to pay three times what the brokers paid in return for as many as they wanted.

Tofanetti’s began marketing them on menus at the Chicago restaurant and throughout the chain.  Mr. Tofanetti even displayed them in the window entrances to his restaurants and soon “Idaho” potatoes were identified on menus throughout the country.

It took a great product but to excel it also took brilliant marketing.  Too many local officials miss this point and thus underestimate the importance of destination marketing organizations.

By the way, Marshall also helped establish the Idaho Potato Commission, based in Eagle, ID and funded by special tax (now 12.5 cents per hundred pounds grown) to perpetuate the marketing of this product.

The concept was later used to pioneer the special room occupancy and tourism development tax to fund community marketing.

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