By Jennifer Young
If your taste buds are rooted in the Midwest, you know there’s no potato chip like Jays.
Jays Potato Chips have been a Midwestern snack staple since Leonard Japp first started producing them in his South Side of Chicago factory in 1927. A former cemetery plot salesman and prizefighter from Minnesota, Japp held a string of odd jobs before purchasing a snack truck. He decided to fry some thinly-sliced potatoes in oil rather than lard, and his reign as the Chicago Potato Chip King began soon after.
After a short-lived career as a professional boxer, Japp worked in Chicago as a bridge builder, boilermaker, bouncer and steeplechaser, repairing multiple church steeples and clock towers around the city.
Japp saw firsthand the potential fortune a snack wagon could make in the city, so he invested less than $30 on a rickety truck and a handful of bagged snacks. “Businessman” Al Capone happened to taste some of Japp’s potato chips and encouraged their maker to produce them on a large scale. Capone was interested in the chips as snacks that he could serve in his speakeasies. Patrons could munch on salty chips and then order more drinks.
Japp took Capone’s advice and opened up his chip-making factory near the Roseland neighborhood on 99th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. He called his snacks ‘Mrs. Japp’s Chips,” and included her dinner recipes on the backs of each chip bag. The chips would become Japp’s success story at last. He sold countless bags with his celebrated logo: “You can’t stop eating ‘em.”
The factory became an important area employer, providing roughly 500 jobs to South Siders. By most accounts, Japp was an ideal employer who knew all his factory workers by name. Japp sold his chips throughout the Midwest, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, store owners immediately called on Japp to get his chips off the shelves owing to the negative connotation of their name.
Japp was hoping to rebrand the chips as Jax Potato Chips, but Jax was already in use as the name of a beer. He landed on Jays and in a matter of days his chips were back in favor. At some point after the war, the chips even caught the attention of John F. Kennedy who sent Japp to the Soviet Union to lead a seminar on his ready-to-eat snacks.
The Jays Potato Chip Factory continued to make its signature chips in all their flavors for decades. However, bigger companies proved to be too much competition for the small brand and the Japp family sold its business to Borden Foods in 1986. The factory continued to churn out chips under the Jays brand, and the family was eventually able to re-acquire the company in 1994. However, it ultimately filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its Chicago operation.
Until the factory closed in 2007, it was a popular field trip destination for school kids from all over the city. Students toured the factory and left with a Jays Potato Chip pencil and a bag of chips. Japp died in 2000 and was mourned by an entire city; Chicagoans lamented the loss of the quintessential rags-to-riches entrepreneur.
Sadly, there’s no longer the greasy but delicious smell of the factory in Chicago’s Roseland community today. Midwesterners can still enjoy Jays Potato Chips: Snyder’s-Lance acquired the Jays’ brand and now produces the chips in its Jeffersonville factory in southern Indiana.