Jays Factory

Posted on in Vacant

I’ve always been loyal to Jays chips, not just because my name is Jay, but also for the same reason most Chicagoans are loyal to anything (including sports teams)… Jays is an example of an honest, unpretentious, great regional brand. Following an acquisition by Snyders of Hanover, Jays Foods closed the doors on its Chicago manufacturing plant in December of 2007. I know, this was awhile ago… I decided to include this feature after seeing this:
Auction – processing equipment – Jays Foods

Many people were caught unaware of the plant closing, partially because of Jay’s steadily shrinking market share since the early 1990’s. It just couldn’t compete with prevalence of the Lay’s products, and that company’s efforts to gain product placement dominance in big store chains. Also, many chain stores have begun selling other private label brands under their own name. Panera Bread recently pulled all Jays products from it’s store chain to begin selling chips in their own packaging, another devastating blow. Someone needs to give Jays some props, so I decided to do some investigation, to see what I could learn about Jays Potato Chips, it’s founder and this brand’s history in Chicago:

Leonard Japp was the son of a Minnesota railroad worker. In 1921, after graduating from high school, Japp jumped on a moving milk train to Chicago. Once in town, he worked as a lifeguard at the ever-popular Oak Street beach. One of his lifeguard colleagues was a young Johnny Weismuller, who would gain fame as an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, and also as film actor, portraying Tarzan on the big screen. But that wasn’t Japp’s only brush with show business fame. As a boxer, he would occasionally spar with another aspiring boxer named Leslie Townes Hope… Hope went on to stardom after changing his first name to Bob.

In 1927, Leonard partnered with a friend to start a concession business called Japp & Gavora. The basis for the entire business was one truck, from which sandwiches, pretzels and cigarettes were sold. Japp had observed the speakeasy culture in Chicago, and determined that there was an opportunity to sell snacks, since many of the bars didn’t carry any food products. As the business grew, so did the manufacturing operations. A fleet of trucks was purchased, as were frying vats, but the success was short-lived. With the Great Depression came great loss, and the assets of Japps & Gavora were forever lost when their bank went into liquidation.

In 1940, Japp went on to found a newer company called Special Foods, which was launched with the help of some winnings from a lucky bet at a racetrack. The company opened a plant on 40th Street to manufacture it’s own potato chips. Up until this point, the company had packaged and redistributed chips from another chip company, Mrs. Fletchers. Things were in full swing by 1941, when another factor began to adversely affect sales.

Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor had created a new pejorative meaning for the Japp name, and people were avoiding the purchase of the Japp’s brand. Leonard contemplated changing the company name to “Jax”, but could not when it was discovered that there was already a beer manufacturer by that name. Finally the name “Jays” was settled upon. You may have noticed that the company name has no apostrophe, that is because there has never been a person at the company named Jay. The product dress we know and love today became complete when Jays added the “can’t stop eating ’em!” slogan, in response to Frito-Lay’s “bet you can’t eat just one”.
Jays Original
Borden Foods bought Jays in 1986, but kept most of the operations the same. It was not a successful acquisition however, and within four years Borden decided to divest. It was at Leonard’s 90th birthday party (in 1994) that someone in the Japp family (it’s unsure who) masterminded the idea to repurchase the Jays name and go back into independent production. Jays was still the most successful chip in the Chicago area, but there were indications that concerns about trans fats and health were adversely affecting the sales of all potato chips brands. Corporate restructuring and newer marketing approaches helped sales for the ailing brand, as did development of the popular Krunchers name, but the national dominance of the Frito-Lay brands made this sales increase short-lived.

Sadly, in 1999 there were the untimely deaths of Leonard’s son, Leonard Jr., and his grandson, Leonard III. Shortly thereafter, Leonard himself died, changing the dynamic of the company forever. His son Steven took over management of the company, but declines in sales and ultimately bankruptcy led to it’s sale to a private equity firm in 2004. Ubiquity Foods was founded, which saw Jays Foods paired up with another snack food company, Lincoln Foods, the makers of Fiddle-Faddle. Despite the launch of “Sweet Baby Jays”, the first new product offering from Jays in years, the steady decline in sales continued, leading to the acquisition by Snyder’s. At least the Jays product will carry on, but this is just another in a string of depressing evacuations from Chicago’s snack food and candy corridor.

Apparently, we can stop eating them.

21 responses to “Jays Factory”

  1. jp twigg says:

    How said. I loved when we would pass the factory at the curve on the Dan Ryan. I would crave Jays for the rest of the day.!

  2. admin says:

    I was never down that way when the factory was in operation. I understand the smell was intoxicating. On par with the fragrance emitted by the Blommer chocolate factory!

  3. I grew up with Jays potato chips. I also remember the plant well on far South Cottage Grove at 98th. Quite often, you would see a 48″ semi-trailer loaded with loose potatoes on a ramp. The ramp would be lifted to maybe a 30 degree angle to dump the load.

    Yes, the aroma from the fresh deep fried chips was intoxicating.

    It would seem like every corner store in the city of Chicago carried Jays. In the 60s, it was quite popular to add ketchup and or hot sauce to the bag and shake it on down! Someone at Jays picked up on the trend, and I think by the mid to late 70s were offering a “hot” variety as well as “ketchup”. Thing was. these were powdered flavorings and just wasn’t quite the same.

  4. admin says:

    @Wolfman- I was unaware of the Jays ketchup variety. I’m scouring the web for a picture. I’m able to find Lay’s Ketchup variety. This is problem with Jays, they are so far down the google search because Lay’s has people tweaking their SEO to gain ground on Jays. Too bad Snyder’s doesn’t consider the Jays product important enough to mount their own SEO efforts.

  5. Jody says:

    Yum…all I can think about right now is a tasty bag of Jays regular salty, crispy wonderfulness.

  6. Chris in the Georgia Mountains says:

    I lived in Chicago, my Midwsy Airport, until 1986 when I moved to Lisle, then Naperville. In December 1988, I left the Chicago area to move to Atlanta, GA, moving to the Georgia mountains in 2002.

    For the first 5 or 10 years of living in GA, I had friends and/or family still living in the Chicago area, send me several items we could not find here – Jays Chips was one of those items. I would go through a bag each week or so and about once a month, I get a huge box with maybe a dozen or more bags of Jays. It was like having a piece of home.

    I no longer get those “goodie” packages for several reasons, the main one is that with the exception of Jays Chips, I can get everything else down here. Too bad I can’t get my favorite potato chip – Jays!

  7. abu says:

    ahh just had 1 bgs of hot jays

  8. Diane Dowland says:

    What memories! My mother worked for Jays when I was a kid. She would bring home big boxes full of the nickle size bags at Halloween. My friends mother worked for Cracker Jack. We knew which houses to go to. I always had Jays in my lunch, at picnics and parties. For the longest time I thought they were the only potato chips. With a quarter you could buy a bag of Jays and a coke. I live in TN now and some friends just came down and brought 4 bags of ok kee doke popcorn. I noticed they were made by the pretzel company. How depressing. Why can’t the best things remain the same?

  9. admin says:

    Yeah, I can remember when Jay’s was the big player in town.

  10. Bob C says:

    Grew up living on Jays. We lived in Olympia Fields, my Grandparents lived in the city (both sets), so went by the plant all the time…the aroma was awesome!!!

    My parents are 83 and 81, still spry, live a few miles down the road. My Mom still has the Jays can (remember those?) on top of her fridge…

    Bob C in sunny FL

  11. Marilyn B Tempe Az says:

    My Aunt worked at Jay’s in the 50’s and used to bring home those huge tins of Jays. Loved them

  12. Joseph W. Haley III says:

    I was born in Evanston in 1940 and lived in Skokie till we moved to Sarasota Florida 1n 1949 where some of our family had purchased land in the 1870’s. My father retired from Central Wax Paper Co. in 1948. Leonard Japp Sr. and my father were friends, and we knew his family. When my father died, Mr.Japp stopped by our home to see my mother and my sister and me. After I graduated from high school, Mr. Japp offed me a job with ‘Jays’. I would start on the loading docks as did his sons, and work my way up. I was greatful for his kind offer, but had an offer to go to sea, and as I had sailed all my life, chose this offer instead.
    I have now read with sadness the loss of the Japp son’s and the closing of the company. My father told me the story of Mr.Japp’s early history making and selling chips on the street. An American success story. In my 70’s now, I still remember the family with fondness.

  13. Joseph W. Haley III says:

    My family has Scottish origins. The surname Japp is also a Scots surname. A commonality along with friendship between my father and Leonard Japp of ‘Jays’.

  14. Corky says:

    When I was a kid you had a onion & garlic chip it was simply the best chip u ever had where did it go what happen to the best chip???????????? Now age 57

  15. Ronald J says:

    I grew up on Jays Chips as well. I lived on 91st off of Cottage Grove. When I went to High School, the CTA bus passed the plant daily. When my sister went away to college in Dallas, Tx. we used to have to ship her a regular supply of the Jays Hot Barbecue…Miss those chips!!!

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  17. Janette Ward says:

    My mother was the first Black women to work at Jays she was there over 30Years there will never be another I miss the great chips she used to bring home so good.

  18. Terry E says:

    I was born and half raised in Chicago, I lived on Lyndale right off of Western Ave..I remember Jays chips as far back as I can! They were the best chips I had ever ate or will ever eat! When I moved to live with my grandmother, family would come to visit and bring me Jays chips! I really miss the good ole things! Memories! I’m 52 now and I still miss the taste. My favorite was BBQ. I really enjoyed reading about the history of Jays and all the reviews. A real enjoyable walk down memory lane.
    Thank You!!

  19. Paula Kline Fulghum says:

    I am trying to locate where my great grandparents lived in Chicago. My Father said they lived next door to a potato chip factory and my great grandmother worked there in the early years. She died in 1949. His name was Valentine Kline and he built houses there.

  20. Bob says:

    My dad worked for Jays and spoke very fondly about Mr. Japp. In fact, he purchased one of his cars for my mom. I believe it was a 56 Ford. Dad was Mr. Japp’s mechanic and worked on the company trucks.

    He went back to Jays to visit and was given Jays potato chips and a huge smile for the memories. He passed in 93 about 6 months after that visit.

    I now live in California. Bringing chips across country is not recommended as the bags burst somewhere in New Mexico due to the elevation. Sadly, I don’t get back to Chicago enough.

  21. marcia graves says:

    Where or who can l contact to have these chips shipped to California