November/December 2019

Idahoan exec says packaged dried potatoes made just like they would be at home

The practice of dehydrating potatoes for later consumption started during World War II as a way to give soldiers in the field a more stable means of food. Not long after the war, when Idaho was fast becoming the top potato-producing state in the U.S., a group of farmers got together and formed their own instant mashed potato company. Idahoan was born.

Although potatoes are full of vitamins and minerals, the industry has battled negative public perception in recent decades that stems from the anti-carb diet movement. It’s even more challenging for a packaged potato products maker like Idahoan, said Ryan Ellis, the company’s vice president of retail marketing and business development.

Could you share a little about your background?

After business school at Purdue University, I started with (Chicago-based retailer) Jewel-Osco. I spent 10 years in the grocery retail business with Jewel and later with Supervalu in Minneapolis. I learned a lot of great business lessons and was given many tremendous opportunities along the way. About eight years ago, I returned to my roots back West, where I have been a part of the leadership team at Idahoan Foods.

What are the key parts of your job? 

Consumer communication and acquisition. Managing the equity and image of the brand. New product launches, business development, advertising, digital and PR. Although we come from a humble heritage which we are proud of, Idahoan has become an industry leader on many of these fronts.

How does the history in retail help?

Having a background in grocery retail provides an understanding of the challenges and constraints that retailers face. This understanding allows for the development of programs that can be executed in store and the launch of products that not only work for consumers but also work well within the retail system. Idahoan strives to create partnerships with retailers.

What makes a good marketing plan?

Understanding your consumer target and how to best reach them. Many consumers are busier than ever and are looking for high-quality meal “short-cuts.” Idahoan’s mashed potatoes are ready in less than five minutes and come in a wide variety of flavors.

How do you stay up on trends and consumer wants? 

Listening to consumers and seeking to understand how Idahoan might provide solutions to their mealtime needs. Attending conferences, reading business publications and spending time in grocery stores and foodservice establishments are also very beneficial. Many of the trends that make it to retail get their start in foodservice.

What is your biggest on-the-job challenge? 

The biggest challenge that Idahoan faces is in helping consumers overcome negative perceptions associated with packaged or fresh-dried potatoes. The great news is that Idahoan’s household penetration has grown significantly and now one out of every three households in the U.S. are Idahoan consumers. (Idahoan) starts with 100% Idaho potatoes from local growers, and then we wash, peel, boil and mash them like you would at home. After cooking each batch, we fresh-dry the mashed potatoes so they’re ready to prepare at home.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I enjoy spending time with my wife and four kids. Our kids are involved in activities and we enjoy supporting them. My personal hobbies include running and cycling.

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