Monday, June 29, 2020

The History of Mrs. Japp's Potato Chips (Jays Foods, Inc.) of Chicago.

In 1927, Leonard Japp Sr. and his friend George Gavora put $5 down on a rickety Ford delivery truck and bought $22.50 worth of pretzels, nuts, cigarettes, and what saloons needed for sandwiches.

When Japp began in 1927 (the Great Depression didn't start until August 1929), his Japp & Gavora Food Co. took off almost immediately by delivering snacks to saloons, some owned by Al Capone. Al was a hands-off owner and had managers running his businesses. All these drinking establishments needed smokes and something to nosh on. 

According to legend, When Al Capone came home after a trip to Saratoga Springs, New York—the potato chip's birthplace—and requested that Japp bring the salty potato snacks to Chicago. (Salty snacks resulted in more beer sales.) In December of 1927, Capone moved to the property he owned in Saint Petersburg, Florida, to escape the heat, no, not that heat, coming down on him in Chicago.

The 'Urban Legend' is that Al Capone gave Leonard Japp enough money to start his potato chip business is not true.
I sent a text message to my friend, Deirdre Marie Capone, Al Capone's Grandniece. 
Deirdre called me:
"I heard that also," said Deirdre, "My family helped lots of people start reputable businesses, some  that are still going," but she had no knowledge or had ever heard the name or product called, "Mr. Japp."

Within two and a half years, Japp had built frying vats, assembled a fleet of 15 new trucks, and peddled a full line of snack products. But the bubble burst when the Great Depression struck in August of 1929. When they went broke, everyone went broke with them.
During the Depression, Japp, an all-state football and basketball player, sparred with Buddy Baer, the heavyweight who twice lost to Joe Louis for the championship, to pick up a little spare money. But then Japp got back into the snack business.

''I got an old vagabond truck, and I can't tell you how. Started buying chips, taffy apples, pretzels.'' Japp was buying chips from Mrs. Fletcher's Potato Chip Co. In 1934, he said, he began putting his name on Fletcher's Potato Chips.

In 1938, he partnered with George Johnson, a salesman for Kraft. Their firm, Special Foods Co., peddled potato chips, noodles, popcorn, spaghetti, jelly, salad dressing, and Rival dog food. ''The grocery stores were all Ma and Pa then and only a few A&Ps. You could park the truck and make three deliveries at once,'' Japp said.

But Japp and Johnson weren't happy with how Mrs. Fletcher ran her plant. Around the same time, the partners heard about a new automatic plant that produced a better chip in Madison, Wisconsin.

''It was nice and light, 1000% better than what we were selling. We decided to go that route, and we were doing great in no time at all,'' Japp said.

The Madison operation went out of business, and the partners began buying a similar product from Blue Star Foods Inc. in Rockford. But as the business grew, Blue Star said the partners would have to go elsewhere because they were gobbling up too much of Blue Star's chips.

''We had been adding trucks, going like crazy and concentrating on chips, getting rid of other items like dog food, jellies, and candy,'' he said.

Forced into manufacturing, the partners bought an $18,000 automatic potato chip maker and installed it at 40th Street and Princeton Avenue in Chicago.

''That's how it got started in 1940. We called it Mrs. Japp's. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, during WWII, the grocers started calling us immediately, demanding that we remove our Japp chips from their stores,'' said Leonard.
So they sat down and, within a week, came up with more than 30 names to submit for trademark registration. ''We wanted Jax, but it was taken by a brewing company. The name 'Jays' was available, and we renamed the company Jays Foods, Incorporated. It took a couple of weeks, but we started putting tags on plain bags with the Jays name on them,'' he said.
''We had to buy second-hand cartons during the war. Without stamps, you couldn't buy anything. My wife, Eugenia, and I would travel all over the MidwestNebraska, the Dakotas—to barter and exchange gas and oil for cooking. We'd buy up all the nylons and trade with those,'' he said.

Some family members changed their last names during or after WWII from Japp to Jepp.

Mrs. Japp, a vice president when she died in 1983 at age 72, was also responsible for starting a practice embraced by the food industry. She began putting recipes on the potato chip packages.

''My wife had run a chain of bakeries and was a fine cook. She kept telling us we had a fine product but had to tell people how to use it. She came up with a recipe for tuna fish casserole with potato chips,'' he said.

Japp was hard to convince, and so was Blue Star in Rockford. But, as Blue Star's biggest customer, Japp talked them into it, as he put it, ''to get my wife off my back.'' Then everyone put recipes on potato chip bags.

''About 18 potato chip companies were in Chicago when the war began. The ones that didn't wheel and deal fell by the wayside,'' he said.

Just before D-Day, Johnson and Japp agreed that they would make a bid to buy the other one out.

''We wrote our bids on paper and agreed the higher one would win. I wanted to bid $120,000, but Eugenia said that if we wanted to keep the company, we should bid $150,000. When we turned over the bids, George had bid $145,000,'' Japp said.

At that time, Jays was doing about $750,000 in business a year, only in the Chicago area. They changed the name to Jays Foods and continued expanding its distribution for the next five years.

The leading chipmaker at the time was Mrs. Klein's, Japp said. ''Mrs. Klein's only worked the main streets, and we worked the side streets. One day, Mrs. Klein's walked out and found we were at her front door. By 1950, we were the top potato chip company in Chicago,'' Japp said.

At about this time, Jays came up with the slogan for which it is almost as famous as Schlitz was for ''The beer that made Milwaukee famous.''

''At food shows, people would write their comments about our potato chips. The most frequent comment was, 'Can't stop eating 'em.' So we began using that,'' he said. Arch rival Frito-Lay, now a subsidiary of giant PepsiCo. Inc. liked the sentiment so much that it started daring the public in 1963: ''Bet you can't eat just one.''

Flushed with success and demand, Jays expanded throughout the 1950s. In 1957, Japp's son, Leonard Jr., joined the firm after six years in the Marine Corps.

''I had always worked at the plant at various jobs, and I started when I was 13,'' said Leonard Jr., the firm's president. When he was in the Marines, he said he would work at the company on his leaves.

In the 1960s, Jays switched from tin cans of potato chips to less expensive boxes.

''They used to deliver those cans to the back door, and we'd fill 'em and load 'em out the front door. There's no way you can store that many cans, and they just became too expensive,'' the younger Japp said.

Over the years, Jays has added to its snack foods, but potato chips constitute 70% of its sales. Pretzels, corn chips, cheese dips, and other products are made elsewhere. Only potato chips and popcorn were made at the South Side plant, at 825 E. 99th Street, But that keeps Jays' 400 employees busy on three shifts a day. The company grew to 850 workers.

''We make potato chips and popcorn for the first two shifts. Then the whole place is scrubbed down during the last shift. We like to say that the place is clean enough to eat off the floor. One television reporter did,'' Leonard Jr. said.

Besides the Chicago plant, the firm has 14 distribution plants and 5 distributors in Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana.

Jays constantly battled to get the right amount of shelf space at grocery stores. ''I don't want more shelf space than I can sell in a store, but I want it where I can be representative. Generally speaking, I think we could do more. If you have too much, you have too much spoilage,'' said Leonard Jr.

Competition always is lurking. Years ago, General Mills Inc. introduced Bugles and Whistles; Procter & Gamble Co. served up Pringles.

''We fought them by stressing that our potato chips are all-natural ingredients, made with no preservatives. We use pure polyunsaturated corn oil,'' said Leonard Jr.

John Cady, the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association president, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group of snack firms, knows Jay's story.

''Jays had expanded its original markets into other states to increase its growth and set up distribution centers outside Chicago to reach out farther than if it was in the Chicago market,'' Cady said. And it's working, he said. ''Overall, consumers must think they've got a pretty good product because they have grown. There's a certain amount of brand loyalty, and people are apparently loyal to Jays, grown up with Jays, and keep buying that brand.''

  • Japp & Gavora Food Co. 1927-1929
  • Leonard Japp's Depression 1929-1934
  • Selling Rebranded Fletcher's Potato Chips 1934-1938
  • Special Foods Company 1938-1940
  • Mrs. Japp's Potato Chips 1940-1941
  • Jays Foods, Inc. 1941-1986
  • Borden, Inc - Jays Foods 1986-1994
  • The Japp Family Reacquired Jays Foods 1994-2004
  • Purchased by Ubiquity Brands - Jays Foods 2004-2007
  • Snyder's-Lance of Hanover - Jays Foods 2007-Present
Snyder's-Lance of Hanover bought Jays in 2007 and promised not to change Jays Foods' methods for manufacturing their snacks, and so far—so good!

Leonard Japp (1904-2000) was buried at Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery, Hillside, Illinois.
Irene Day Japp (1905-1938), the 1st wife, died 11 years after marriage in 1927. Irene is buried at Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery, Hillside, Illinois.
Eugenia Peszynski Japp  2nd, wife married in 1939 - died in 1983.
Janice M Japp - 3rd wife (Dates unknown)

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Deirdre Marie Capone is a writer and producer known for Al Capone, the Untold Story, Capone: The Man That Knew Too Much, and The Making of the Mob (2015) IMDb.

Deirdre Marie Capone authored; "Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family."


  1. My parents, both South Siders used to walk to the Jay's factory and purchase fresh made chips, hot off the fryer! Dad told me the Japp's had to change the name because of WWII and its negative connotation of Japanese people.

  2. George Gavora was my uncle. He was married to my mother's sister Marie. I remember visiting his potato chip factory when I was a child.

  3. Replies
    1. In 1932, salesman Herman Lay opened a snack food operation in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1938, he purchased the Atlanta, Georgia-based potato chip manufacturer "Barrett Food Company," renaming it "H.W. Lay Lingo & Company." Lay crisscrossed the southern United States, selling the product from the trunk of his car. The business shortened its name to "the Lay's Lay Lingo Company" in 1944 and became the first snack food manufacturer to purchase television commercials, using Bert Lahr as its celebrity spokesperson. In 1961, the Frito Company, founded by Charles E. Doolin, merged with Lay’s, forming Frito-Lay Inc.


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.