FELIKS BANEL

All Over the Map: There’s no potato in regional favorite Idaho Spud candy bar

Jul 2, 2021, 9:46 AM | Updated: Jul 5, 2021, 12:07 am

Recent efforts to expand the border of Idaho to encompass much of rural Oregon have made some wonder what effect this drastic change might have on life in the Northwest. And what might this do to a longtime Northwest candy bar whose name honors its home state and that state’s most famous export?

The candy bar is, of course, the Idaho Spud. It’s not as local for Washingtonians as the Mountain Bar, or even Aplets & Cotlets, but the Idaho Spud has been a fixture on the shelves of certain retailers in the Evergreen State for decades.

They’re made by the Idaho Candy Company in Boise – in the same factory where they’ve always been made – and date back to at least 1918, or maybe even a little earlier. The company was founded in 1901, and along with the Idaho Spud, it still makes some other more generic candies, such as peanut brittle and chocolates. The Idaho Spud is a bit of throwback to the 1940s, when there were still many regional candy companies – and regional candy bars – all over the United States.

While Dave Wagers, 55, is president of the Idaho Candy Company, he told KIRO Radio earlier this week, with a chuckle, that “the title on my business card is ‘Candyman.’”

Wagers’ late father bought the company in 1984 after a long career as an accountant. Dave Wagers joined the business as a young man after following a similar, though shorter-lived, path.

“It’s much more fun to talk to parents or kids about what you do when it’s a candy company versus being an accountant,” Wagers said. “Everybody kind of glazes over at accounting. … I did [accounting] for a couple years before I came back to work for my dad.”

“I’ve been here full time ever since 1991,” Wagers said. “Actually, I started when he bought the candy company in 1984, so I got a couple summers working in the warehouse and cleaning bathrooms and doing all that good stuff that everybody should get to do along the way.”

Wagers clearly loves his job and the candy business, and he knows the history of the company and of the Idaho Spud.

The candy bar, Wagers says, was likely named for its home state by original company founder T.O. Smith – though the origins of the word “Idaho” are somewhat dubious. Regardless, it’s a great geographically specific name for a candy bar from the Gem State. However, Wagers admits it’s a bit of a head-scratcher when it comes to basic consumer appeal.

“It’s probably the only candy bar ever named after a vegetable,” Wagers said. “I don’t necessarily see the allure but, you know, somehow it works.”

To be clear, there is no potato in an “Idaho Spud.” Idaho is famous for potatoes, of course, and, according to the Idaho Potato Commission, the first potatoes were planted there by missionary Henry Spaulding – a contemporary of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman – in 1837. By the 1870s, growers in Idaho Territory were shipping potatoes all over the western United States, and by the 1890s, Idaho was nationally known for its famous spuds.

In the most recent years for which figures are available, Idaho was first in the nation with more than 13 million pounds of potatoes produced; Washington (which once included all of what’s now Idaho within its borders) was second with nearly 10 million pounds. Incidentally, according to the awesomely-titled book Aristocrat in Burlap: A History of the Potato in Idaho, the most common variety grown in Idaho is the Russet Burbank, developed, at least partly, by Luther Burbank – the same 19th century horticulturist blamed/credited for the Himalayan Blackberry.

What, exactly then, is inside an Idaho Spud candy bar? The core is a chunk of marshmallow – but unlike campfire marshmallows, Wagers says, there’s no gelatin, only a seaweed extract, something called “agar agar,” so the Idaho Spud marshmallow breaks rather than stretches. The marshmallow core is covered with chocolate, and then dusted with unsweetened coconut.

And while there is no potato in an Idaho Spud, the bar itself – and the packaging – do bear a certain tuber-inspired visual resemblance.

The bar “does look a little like a potato,” Wagers said. “I think the idea was the coconut are the eyes of the potato.”

Hmmmm. Potato shape, yes. Coconut potato eyes? Hmmmm.

“If you look at our wrapper, I mean, we still use a very similar wrapper that we did in the 30s and 40s,” Wagers said. “It’s a brown wrapper with ‘Idaho Spud’ in yellow and then, if you look at it closely, there’s little potato eyes on it.”

Yes. Definitely. That works. And by the way, a “spud” is a kind of vintage shovel used to dig up something like a potato.

And unlike real potatoes, the bars are tasty at room temperature, but Wagers says that some Idahoans swear by refrigerated or even frozen Idaho Spuds.

Dave Wagers also told KIRO Radio that the company will sell about 2 million Idaho Spuds in 2021. Much of those sales are in the states around Idaho – Utah, Montana, Oregon, Washington – but the bulk, Wagers says, or probably 60% of the bars sold, are sold in Idaho. It, of course, makes sense that the Idaho Spud is a favorite in its namesake place.

So then, wouldn’t an expanded Idaho – stretching to the Pacific Ocean – eventually mean more sales for Idaho Spud?

Candyman Dave Wagers told KIRO Radio that because he’s president of the Boise School Board, he tries to avoid weighing in on political issues because he often ends up getting into trouble.

Pressed on the issue, purely as an apolitical business owner, wouldn’t a bigger Idaho be a good thing for the Idaho Spud?

“I should probably sponsor the movement,” Wagers said, deploying his ‘Candyman’ chuckle once again. “You know, it would make sense.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over the Map: There’s no potato in regional favorite Idaho Spud candy bar