Miles Willard

Finding new ways to turn potatoes into a snack food

Published in the April 2009 Issue Published online: Apr 30, 2009 Mark Tensmeyer
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One of the most diverse vegetables there is, a potato can be served baked, twice-baked, mashed, fried, put in casseroles, slow-cooked, used as french fries, tater tots, hash browns and the list goes on. Miles Willard and the company he started have been finding more ways to serve potatoes specifically as a snack food.

Today Miles Willard Technologies of Idaho Falls, Idaho, owns over 60 patents, most of which are for potato products including fried potato rings, frozen potato products and even toaster-ready hash browns. The company itself doesn't market any products, but rather does research and development for dozens of companies in the United States and worldwide.

During World War II, troops were rationed dehydrated, dried and diced potatoes, which were not very appetizing. Miles Willard was part of a team working for the Department of Agriculture in the 1950s that developed a way to dry cooked potatoes that could be re-hydrated into good-tasting mashed potatoes, thus making potato flakes marketable as a commercial product.

Willard went to Idaho Falls to help start the first commercial potato flake factory in 1957. Miles Willard Co. still has a can of potato flakes from the first batch for commercial production on display at its Idaho Falls office.

He spent the next few years traveling the U.S. and Europe consulting various companies on the use and manufacture of dehydrated potatoes. It was about that time he set his sights on new horizons for potatoes.

Veldon Hix, current research manager of Miles Willard Tech., recalls: "Miles thought to himself, `What else can we do with potato flakes besides make mashed potatoes?'"

Setting up shop, Willard went to work on a snack food. He took potato flakes, added other ingredients like flour and salt, made it into dough, cut out little round rings and fried it. United Biscuit, a company based in Great Britain, picked up the product naming it Hula Hoops after its hoop shape.

Kids loved the snack because Hula Hoops were round and small enough to fit on their fingers. Parents liked them because they were small and convenient. The treat was an instant success and remains a popular product in the U.K., putting United Biscuit on the map as a snack food provider in that country. Willard worked a licensing/royalty deal enabling him to receive a cut of net sales of the product he developed.

That started the business model the company follows today. They have developed dozens of products for companies around the world and receive royalties on net sales. Miles Willard ran the company for over three decades before retiring in 1998. He passed away in 2004.

According to Hix, at one point the products developed accounted for about 2 percent of the potatos grown in the United States. You may remember the O'Boises snack popular in the 1990s. The Keebler company, known for cookies and crackers, at that time had a snack line consisting almost exclusively of Miles Willard products.

O'Boises (a name combining the phrase: `oh boy' and the capital of Idaho) were a flaky, savory potato chip. Having been off the market for two decades after Keebler dropped its snack line, there is discussion now of bringing them back.

"We still get calls and letters from people wondering when O'Boises are coming back," Hix said.

Miles Willard Technologies, now an employee-owned company based in Idaho Falls, has a small staff of about 16 employees, most of whom have worked there for over 10 years-some more than 25. In addition to developing new products, typical projects include researching and testing improvements on current projects.

Hix credits a small but highly competent staff as the reason behind their efficiency. "We can make a test today and have samples at [our client's] door at 9 a.m. the next day. They can call us with suggestions and we'll get new samples out the same day," he said.

Eli Whitney (the inventor of the cotton gin, with interchangeable parts) would sure be proud of all the interchangeable parts and equipment at Miles Willard. All the equipment for tests and development are on wheels, allowing employees to set up for one product, take it down, and do another. Any product Miles Willard designs can be produced at a small scale at their lab.

Miles Willard's latest project has been for the U.S. Potato Board, sending samples of dehydrated potatoes to foreign countries. "I think a lot of countries haven't caught on to dehydrated potatoes," Hix said. "There is a huge potential for developing countries."

Hix and others cite dehydrated potatoes as a way to fight world hunger and boost the potato economy in America.

Hix says, "I love potatoes and I love mashed potatoes, but when you think of having to get the potato, wash it, skin it, cook it, mash it, add the milk and everything else it's a lot easier to get the dehydrated potato and add water."