Saturday 25 March 2017

Tayto crisp barons who made a packet

Our reporter on the history of the iconic - and now German-owned - potato snack

Mr Tayto: Ray Coyle
Mr Tayto: Ray Coyle
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Ray Coyle has been described as the "Willy Wonka'' of the Irish crisp world. Next to his Tayto crisp factory in Meath, he created a theme park with Europe's largest wooden roller coaster. Tayto Park is now one of Ireland's most popular attractions for families with a menagerie of animals that includes a tiger, buffaloes, a boa constrictor and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs.

Coyle has built up a crisp empire that dominates the Irish snack market. After starting with just one fryer, he set up Cottage Crisps. Over time, he gobbled up the biggest Irish names in crisps - Perri, Kings, Sam Spudz, and, finally, Ireland's most iconic snack, Tayto. He also started Hunky Dory.

This week it was announced that he has sold off the shares in his crisp empire to the German snack moguls Intersnack, who also own Hula Hoops and McCoy's. Tayto will join Guinness, HB ice cream, Siúcra sugar and Lyons Tea as an iconic Irish brand that is no longer Irish-owned.

Coyle was not, of course, the first Mr Tayto. The man who actually invented Tayto, Dubliner Joe 'Spud' Murphy, is still renowned the world over as one of the greatest crisp pioneers of the 20th century.

Born in 1923, Murphy had apparently shunned a life in the priesthood - two of his brothers were priests - by announcing: "To hell with this, we need one sinner in the family.''

'Spud' Murphy came up with the idea for Tayto in 1954, because he found other crisp flavours, salted or unsalted, rather insipid.

He started his crisp empire on O'Rahilly Parade in Dublin with one van and eight employees. The crisps were cooked by hand in two deep-fat fryers, with Murphy's wife, Bunny, helping to slice the potatoes.

One of his early employees, Seamus Burke, was charged with perfecting the revolutionary new cheese & onion flavour. Burke, working on what was essentially nothing more sophisticated than a kitchen table, experimented for weeks until he came up with a flavour that his boss judged to be acceptable.

The brand name Tayto had its genesis in Murphy's eldest son Joseph's inability to pronounce the word "potato". As a child, he called potatoes "tatos". So with the addition of a 'y', Mr Tayto was born - a cartoon-like, potato-shaped figure in a hat and shop coat, printed on the bright, eye-catching crisp bags.

The crisps took the Irish snack world by storm, and the popularity of cheese & onion spread abroad. By the 1960s, Murphy was a millionaire. He drove around Dublin in a Rolls Royce (replaced every two years) and was hailed by then-Taoiseach Sean Lemass as the very acme of Irish entrepreneurial spirit.

Spud was something of a shopaholic, and was known to walk into a shop and buy up its entire stock of cashmere jumpers.

He was so generous with his tips that the doormen at hotels in Dublin and London would vie with one another for the privilege of parking his car.

Stories about Murphy abound. On one occasion he was reportedly hauled into court after a "foreign body'' found its way into a Tayto packet. When it was put to him that the object was dangerous, he picked up the offending item, popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. The case was dismissed.

Another tale, possibly apocryphal, suggests that when the Tayto founder was buried at sea and his body lowered into the depths in 2001, cheese & onion crisps were gently scattered on the waves.

The rise of Ray Coyle to the throne of the Irish Tayto crisp kingdom is in some ways equally dramatic as that of Murphy.

By the late 1970s, Coyle was a potato farmer who had fallen on hard times. He was heavily indebted to the bank after the price of spuds collapsed.

Faced with financial ruin, Coyle came up with the innovative idea of holding a raffle to sell his farm. Five hundred tickets were sold for €300 each. The farm lottery attracted national attention and when the property was sold, the penniless potato grower was able to pay off his debts.

Having gobbled up other legendary crisp names, the Meath man bought Tayto and Kings for €62m in 2006.

Like Michael O'Leary of Ryanair, Coyle has mastered the art of commanding attention through eye-catching public relations stunts.

A rugby-themed poster campaign for Hunky Dorys crisps centring on busty women clad in sports gear was withdrawn after a threat of legal action and 300 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland. By the time the controversy had died down, Hunky Dory had received plenty of free publicity.

Six years ago, the crisp king from Ashbourne caused a sensation in the publishing world by producing a bestselling book, Mr Tayto: The Man Inside the Jacket.

It may be the bestselling crispography in publishing history, and featured such corny jokes as: "Two Tayto crisps walk into a bar. One was a salted."

Before that, Mr Tayto's face was seen all over the country on lamp-posts as it was announced that he was running in the general election against Bertie Ahern.

Coyle has described these stunts as "classic guerrilla marketing", and they have helped Tayto and its related snack brands bring in annual sales of up to €100m a year.

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