Ellie Mejia

The History of the Potato Chip

Leonard Japp’s popular creation has deep roots in Chicago history

AI grew up, Jays faded into a childhood memory. My commutes to Hammond, IN when I went to Purdue Calumet rekindled my love for Jays. I would pass by their factory near I-94 south. On cold January days like today, the wind would blow down plumes of white smoke with the sweet smell of freshly cooking potato chips onto the expressway,” writes Park Ridge “Yelper” Mike O. about his unfaltering loyalty to Jays snack products.

The Jays Foods potato chip factory once stood in the Rosemoor neighborhood on 99th Street, but it extended its reach as far as the expressway with its strong smell of delicious grease. With a golden physique, crunchy crackle, and the slogan “You can’t stop eating ‘em,” the potato chips of snack manufacturer Jays Foods have been deliciously appealing to the Midwest since 1927. However, what most distinguishes Jays is the enduring nostalgia nestled in the hearts of Chicagoans, especially those who lived close to the 99th Street South Side factory.

Closed in 2007, when Jays was sold to the food distributor Snyder’s, the factory is surrounded not just by fond memories but also by intriguing history. In 1927, after a series of odd jobs, including prizefighter and cemetery plot salesman, Minnesotan Leonard Japp turned to snack food. He created the modern-day Jays potato chip by frying potatoes in oil rather than lard, making the taste we have come to recognize: thin, crunchy, and deep-fried.

The story of how Japp went from street peddler to factory owner includes none other than Al Capone, who encouraged Japp to open factories and mass-produce his snacks for Capone’s speakeasies. The potato chip entered the trade about a year later, when Capone urged Japp to make them after tasting them in Sarasota, New York, where potato chips were first invented.

In keeping with the the TV dinner trend of the age, Mrs. Japp herself included her dinner recipes, which naturally included potato chips as an ingredient, on the back of every bag. Originally named “Mrs. Japp’s Chips” for Japp’s wife, the name was changed to Jays in 1941 due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.

Despite a rocky ride full of ups and downs, Japp saw great success with his Chicago business, which provided the craved snack throughout the Midwest. His family business’s prosperity was indicative of the need for an on-the-go snack that had not yet been introduced to the market before the late 1920s. After a solid start, Japp almost lost everything in the stock market crash and Depression, but he fortuitously won it all back on a lucky racehorse. Later on, President Kennedy invited Mr. Japp to lead a seminar in the Soviet Union on his ready-to-eat potato chips.

In 1986, beaten by bigger brands, the Japp family resigned themselves to moving on and sold their family business to Borden Inc. Years later, the family bought back their family name with the hope of returning to greasy glory, only to realize they were entering a market defined by trans-fat naysayers and the new “organic” trend. In the mid-90s, Jays fell once more into decline and finally went bankrupt in 2004. It is now owned by Snyder’s and produces in small quantities, yet remains true to only selling in the Midwest.

Japp died in 2000 at ninety-six. Remembered as a kind boss, he was said to have known everyone in his South Side factory by name, with employees remaining by his side for more than thirty years. The city knew him as the classic American entrepreneur, one of Chicago’s oldest and favorite relics from bygone times.

Even though the factory has left the South Side, the name lives on through oral histories of the good vibes and good smells when passing by—not to mention through Snyder’s online ordering site.

“They used to give us pencils, I remember,” says Lee Bey, Associate Director of Special Projects at the Arts Incubator, as he remembers his own class trips to the factory. “When we were coming home, you knew it, you could smell it on the expressway.”

Upwards of 500 jobs were lost when the factory closed its doors in 2007, but Chicago’s residents haven’t lost their memories of when those doors were open. As Bey recounts, “One of the things that marks some of Chicago’s areas are the smells, especially the South Side. And Jays was one of them. You definitely knew you were in the Southeast because of Jays.” Whether they reminisce about school field trips or the commute home, esteem for Leonard Japp or cravings for his potato chips, South Side residents have a special place in their hearts, and stomachs, for Jays.


  1. Where was the Jays’ factory located near Root Street (41st) and what other street in Chicago around 1955?
    Thank you.

  2. Growing up in Hobart, we always had Jay’s Potato chips around the house. I found it interesting in your article about the recipes on each bag. Our family still uses a stuffing recipe my dad found on the back of a Jay’s bag many, many years ago.

  3. Please share a picture of the can of potato chips from the 50’s. Both, my mother and my mother-in-law had one. Of course they are gone now. Not
    sure what happened to the can but they used it in various ways, a container for more chips, a canister for sugar and flour. Thank you.

  4. How can we get Mrs. Japp’s recipes. I made my husband our first (what I considered a gourmet dinner in 1970–I was 20 years old back then) with a Jay’s back of the box recipe “chicken chip breasts.” I tried calling Jay’s years ago but no one was helpful and couldn’t care less about trying to research a bit. I would love to frame the recipe.

  5. Please tell me if you have ever heard of the Honey Bee Co. I have a Potato chip tins and cannot find any information about it. It does say Chicago, Ill on it.


    • Honey Bee was a snack company owned by my uncle George Gavora who at one time was a partner with Leonard Japp. When they split up my uncle took the factory and Japp took the trucks and finally changed his product to Jay’s due to WW2.
      Jim Arends.

  6. Jays potato chips dont have the flavor they had when I was unger the barbecue way beter then now your hands were red when you ate them and they had a great teast not worth buying anymore

  7. When I was a young kid in the ’60s I only ate Jays. But something changed. The taste did. Perhaps their recipe or methods changed?

  8. Jays you just can’t stop eating them , I grew up in Chicago and ate jays chips and still enjoy them . I remember as a kid going over to a friend of my dad’s house and seeing a can of Japps chips , yes it was spelled Japps and then they told me the story of the spelling , so now after 40 years I own this can and its a treasure, happy memories.

    • You can buy them on Amazon. Not sure if the taste will be the same, some say they still taste the same. Hope this helps.

  9. Yes, I remember Jays potato chips very will growing up in the Chicago suburbs of Brookfield, Elmhurst, Downers Grove, and finally Naperville Illinois. They were great and we all loved eating them. I’m 70 years old and have lived in Wausaukee, Peshtigo, and Marinette Wisconsin. We would always somehow find Jays potato chips. Especially when we went back to Illinois to visit relatives. I now live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and miss my Jays potato chips. Funny thing is, I love Snyder’s products. Especially the Sourdough Nibblers. I just moved down to Tennessee recently and don’t know if I can get Jays potato chips here at all.

    • Great story. I’m originally from Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood and I used to ride my bike in the 60’s and early 70’s straight up Cottage Grove to Jay’s for a regular bag. I would whip out the bottle of hot sauce I carried in my back pocket and go to work on those chips. Living in Alabama now where Walmart’s sells O-KE-DOKE cheese popcorn . . . Yummy! Thanks for the memory!

  10. Worked there in the early 70’s the Japps were wonderful everyone who worked there got a Free hot lunch every day made in their cafeteria what great people! Good memories

  11. Grew up on Jays, and it was not false advertising on the packaging that
    exclaimed,“You can’t stop eating ‘em,”. Tried some recently, but they just
    don’t taste the same. The old ingredients were: Selected Potatoes, Corn
    Oil, Salt. The new ingredients are: Potatoes, Canola Oil and/or Corn Oil,
    Salt. The practice of switching the canola and corn oil changes the flavor. Especially, companies that take over new ownership can’t leave anything alone. Twinkie comes to mind. The texture of the chips are also slightly different.

  12. Just noticed that the big Jay’s sign has been removed from the Cottage Grove location. I know the place was sold but when was the sign removed? I thought it was a Chicago Historical site.

  13. Loved Jay’s chips and it is one of the many happy memories of growing up in the 60’s in the Midwest. Although my family moved from Chicago to Michigan when I was very young, we made frequent trips back and my Grandma always made sure there was plenty of Jay’s in her house, in the blue and white metal canister. Of course, we always took a few bags home with us when we went back to Michigan (Detroit’s Better Made chips were/are good, but they just couldn’t compare..)
    Still remember our salty, shiny fingers-

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