In a Crunch

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Reno’s own Circus Potato Chips ruled the snack world of its day.

It’s football season and, for many, chip-and-dip season. Guac and corn chips may be the standard now, but there was a time when potato chips and onion dip ruled the snack world. I’ve always loved potato chips, so when I discovered that Midtown Reno had a potato chip factory that thrived between 1933 and 1959, I knew I needed to investigate.

Midtown Manufacturing

It all started with James DeSomma — born in Naples, Italy — who came to Reno in 1919. After working in the gaming industry, he founded the DeSomma Potato Chip Co. He constructed a building at 1324 S. Virginia St. at a time when the area now known as Midtown was home to many small manufacturing operations. James and his wife, Nellie, lived in the small house next to the factory.

The company’s signature product was Circus Potato Chips, although it also made a popular popcorn line. The chips were made daily, and grocery ads regularly featured them for sale, with the “giant bag” size going for 25 cents. Ads touted that the chips were sold at “independent stores.”

Ownership Changes

The couple divorced in 1945 and sold the company to Herman and Truman Christ. The brothers retained the name and immediately made their presence known. An advertisement for the Blue Bird Club at 10 W. Commercial Row declared, “Drop in for a gala evening of dancing, entertainment and fun serving the finest liquors and mixed drinks. Circus Potato Chips served free at all times.”

The Christs continued marketing the brand. In 1949, they sponsored a sports show on KWRN radio. In 1951, while the Shriners were in town for a conference, their ad read, “You drink the beer we’ll furnish the chips.”

At this point, the company had moved to a nearby building at 1320 S. Virginia St. Innovation was in the air when, in 1957, the factory introduced Chili Bowl Seasoning, an interesting precursor to the many flavored chips on the shelves today. The company changed hands again in 1953, when an advertisement indicated that Herman was teaming up with a new partner, Willard Dixon: “Let’s get acquainted with the owners of Circus Potato Chips. We’re always happy to be able to serve you with the finest potato chips and popcorn ever made.”

Photo courtesy of Newspapers.com

Another big change came in 1959 when the owners sold the company to Frito Co. of Dallas, Texas (yes, the same one that in 1961 would become the behemoth Frito-Lay Co.). It was the end of an era for Circus Potato Chips and another loss to Midtown. The Christs became local representatives for Frito Co. and its line of Crispie potato chips, which, sadly, were manufactured in Stockton, Calif.

Memories Live On

Jerry Fenwick, well-known local historian and author, recalls his younger days when he enjoyed the locally made chip.

“At Circus Potato Chips, we could always get one of the little brown paper bags, and that was comical because we [had] no more than [stepped out onto] the street when the grease was showing through on the sides of the bag,” he says.

Another memory comes from noted local historian Neal Cobb, who recalls that, as children, he and his friends would peek in and ask for free sample bags and received a tour of the deep fryer. They would take their greasy bags and head to the nearby Shoshone Coca-Cola Bottling Co. for the perfect afternoon snack.

“Free” was the attraction, because, as Fenwick points out, “they were some of the lousiest potato chips in the world. Laura Scudder’s was the one that had the good potato chips.”

According to Frito-Lay, potato chips still are the most popular snack, followed by tortilla chips. You will find corn chips on my shelf, but there will always be a unique spot for the crispy, salty, traditional potato chip in my heart — and on my coffee table at game time.

 

Sharon Honig-Bear was the long-time restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is involved with Historic Reno Preservation Society and a supporter of all things cultural and historic. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.

Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.

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