But in no history book can I find mention of Charles Elmer Doolin and his Great Depression brainstorm that forever changed our nation’s eating habits. If you ask me, the guy deserves a statue and a parade.
True, he may not have done my waistline much good, but over the years, he’s added greatly to my enjoyment of county fairs, ballgames , late-night TV watching, backyard cookouts and long cross-country drives. His food-on-the-run invention has been my constant companion since boyhood days.
Think about it for a minute: Where would we be today without his crispy, salted corn chips, Fritos? If there were a Snack Food Hall of Fame, Doolin would get my vote for immediate induction.
His proud daughter, Kaleta, an accomplished Dallas artist and careful keeper of the family history, agrees. Her dad and his story are, she rightfully boasts, a need-to-know part of Americana. And she’s the go-to source for how it all came about; she’s even written a book, Fritos Pie: Stories, Recipes and More, that Texas A&M University Press will publish next fall.
You want an honest-to-goodness success tale, she’s got a dandy.
In the early 1930s, C.E. Doolin was the proprietor of San Antonio’s Highland Park Confectionary, constantly in search of new ways to lure customers into his establishment. In addition to the pastries, ice creams, soft drinks and candies he had to offer, he wanted some kind of bite-size treat he could place on his counter for arriving patrons.
Down the street, at a neighborhood service station, Gustavo Olguin had just the thing. Originally from Mexico, Olguin had brought the idea of a popular Mexican beach food that he cooked, packaged and sold. It wasn’t exactly the culinary version of rocket science. He shaped masa (a corn and water mixture) into small strips using a converted potato ricer, deep-fried and salted them, and then put the crispy chips into small bags. Records show that he started with a grand total of only 19 customers.
Aware that Olguin wanted badly to return to his homeland and to his love of coaching soccer, Doolin offered to buy him out. After considerable negotiation, the owner agreed to sell his recipe, customer list and cooking utensils for $100 cash.
Doolin’s only problem was in getting his hands on that kind of money.
Which is where his mother, Daisy Dean Doolin, enters our story. Demonstrating remarkable faith in her son’s plan, she offered to pawn her wedding ring, an above-and-beyond gesture that raised $80. Gustavo Olguin loaned C.E. the additional $20, and thus was born The Frito Co.
Its first headquarters was Daisy Doolin’s kitchen when 10 pounds of fritos (Spanish translation: “fried things”) could be produced daily. Priced to sell for a nickel per package, on a good day the chips brought in a profit of two bucks.
That, as we historians like to say, was how it all began.
In the years to come, Doolin became consumed with the notion that he had struck a food product gold mine. Eventually, production moved into a rented building that would house Doolin-designed cooking facilities, assembly-line conveyor belts, a packaging process and its own test kitchen for continued experimenting with the recipe. He even began growing and testing various types of corn in his search for the perfect masa.
“We kids were his taste testers,” recalls Kaleta. “He’d bring samples home, straight off the conveyor belt.”
Fritos were a hit in the Doolin home as well as in food outlets nationwide. And not just as a snack but as an ingredient in recipes Daisy Doolin was coming up with to be printed on the back of each package. There were her Fritos Meatloaf, Fritos Squash and, most important, her famed Fritos Pie, that simple and tasty treat that remains the favorite of every high school football-stadium concession stand in the nation. You don’t even need to write it down to remember it: Open a pack of Fritos, pour in a little chili, stir and enjoy. I can do it with my eyes closed.
But, back to our history lesson.
In 1934, the farsighted Doolin moved his operation to Dallas and ultimately had a fleet of delivery trucks on the road. By 1950, Fritos were being sold in every state in the U.S. A decade later, distribution had expanded to 48 countries.
Such was the ever-growing demand that he eventually sold a dozen manufacturing franchises. Among those who bought in was Herman Lay, a Nashville businessman who was also pioneering in the snack-food business. If you bought a bag of potato chips in the southeastern U.S. back in those days, it was most likely distributed by Lay’s company.
Ultimately, it was at Lay’s suggestion that the companies merged into what would become the famous and mega-successful Frito- Lay Co.
Not a bad return on a $100 investment.