BOISE, Idaho — J.R. Simplot, who became a billionaire by developing the frozen french fry and then signing a deal with McDonald's to provide them to the nation, died Sunday morning at his condominium in downtown Boise. He was 99.
Simplot was an old-time entrepreneur, a onetime farmboy who never went to high school but built a personal fortune Forbes Magazine estimated at $2.6 billion in 2006. The company he began with the flip of a coin to acquire a $252 potato sorter grew into one of the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world. He claimed to own more deeded land than any other man in America. He owned the nation's largest cattle ranch in Oregon and had holdings from China to Chile.
After World War II, his food production business expanded into freezing and canning, developing the product that would become the company's mainstay: the frozen french fry. Simplot then struck a deal with McDonald's Corp. founder Ray Kroc, and his fry business grew with Americans' love for fast food, supplying billions of fries for billions of fast-food customers.
Late into his life, the former McDonald's board member drove his white Lincoln Town Car with "Mr. Spud" vanity plates to the fast food chain for hashbrowns or french fries several times a week. More recently, he could be seen driving around Boise in a motorized cart.
He was in some ways the commonest of men. Anyone could call him. His home number was in the book; he answered the phone himself. He owned a business jet, but routinely flew commercial — coach class.
His favorite restaurant was McDonald's, where he invariably ordered french fries. He was a member of Boise's exclusive Arid Club, but seldom ordered a meal there because he thought the prices were too high. Of far more interest to him was the club's card room. His game: gin rummy, no holds barred.
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