Three Salt Lakers, spending a few days at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park, walk to the general store for something to augment their lunch of sandwiches and potato chips.
After looking over the possibilities, they suddenly spy a familiar name on a red gelatin salad. Lynn Wilson. It looks cool and refreshing on a hot summer day. They buy it.This scene is repeated hundreds of times daily in many states as people do their grocery shopping or purchase items while vacationing. Wilson Products Co., with its 100 ready-to-eat products, has become a mainstay in the Utah business stream.
With 75-year-old founder and chairman of the board Lynn R. Wilson still deeply involved in the company operation, Wilson Products Co. is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
From a tiny potato-salad-making operation in his home kitchen to supplying local grocery stores to the highly automated and computerized operation of today that did $9 million in sales in 1987 and is projected for $10 million this year, Wilson Products is a familiar name in the food business.
But Wilson Products, like many companies, has changed over the years. Salads were the big item in the early years, but now frozen burritos constitute about 60 percent of the company's business.
From his modestly decorated office at one end of the food preparation plant at 1811 W. 17th South, Wilson recounts his success story. He still goes to the office every day, but now he considers himself semi-retired - working only 45 hours per week.
His son, David, is company president.
Wilson is a native of Riverside, Idaho, a small farming community west of Blackfoot, where his father was a potato farmer. The family moved to Pocatello when Wilson was four years old and the future businessman worked on the farm every day after school, doing the regular chores.
Besides raising potatoes, Wilson's father raised hay and corn that he sold by the railroad car that came near the farm on a spur line. Wilson sorted potatoes, watered and weeded the crops and milked the family cow.
He enrolled at Idaho State University in 1931 and attended classes for six months, but then went to Salt Lake City and enrolled at the University of Utah. He lived with two other men and recalled they only ate one meal per day. "It was during the Great Depression and nobody had any money," he said.
While attending classes, Wilson took on his first business venture, making chocolate-covered cashew nuts. Wilson paid $10 rent for a room in the Highland Dormitory at 13th East and Second South and rented a second room where he dipped the nuts.
"I went broke in two months," Wilson laughs. "I made great nuts, but I didn't have any experience in business and I did everything by hand so I couldn't produce much," he recalled.
He dropped out of the university in 1934 and started working in delicatessens. In 1936 he married Eva Durrant, his wife of 48 years. (She died in 1984 and he later married Barbara Sprunt.)
Early in 1938, Wilson was making $25 per week in a delicatessen and decided there was a more efficient way to make potato salads in bulk. The effects of the depression were still lingering, but he quit his job and the couple began making bulk potato salad.
They boiled the potatoes at home, peeled them by hand, diced them and after adding the other ingredients sold the food to grocery stores in one-gallon containers. From there the grocers sold the salad as ordered by the customers because today's fancy packages were non-existent.
The first salad production for the Wilsons came in a duplex at Seventh East and Fifth South with the family living in one side and cutting potatoes in the other.
Later in 1938, sales began to slow down as the weather for eating potato salad cooled off, so Wilson began experimenting with chili bricks and tamales, more traditionally eaten in cooler weather. Wilson tamales were rolled and the ends tied by hand, but later he invented a machine that formed the tamales although they still had to be wrapped in parchment paper and the ends tied.
As business increased, the Wilsons purchased a home and a building at 657 Iverson St. and gradually added new products. In 1959 he moved to the present location, one of the first companies in the Industrial Center. As business increased and new products were added to the line, new space was built and today Wilson Products has 65,000 square-feet of space in which 100 different items are produced.
In addition to adding new products and the machinery to produce them as needed, Wilson also has dropped some products that weren't profitable. One was a line of canned items and today Wilson deals almost exclusively in fresh or frozen foods.
Beside the many kinds of salads, Wilson produces parfaits, baked beans, corn and flour tortillas, enchiladas, horseradish, a base for seafood salad, puddings, taco shells and salsa. The company also produces items sold under different names and handles some items like sliced luncheon meats for other companies.
Wilson products are sold in all of the Intermountain Area states and Washington, Oregon and Alaska. The burritos are shipped to a few other states, with Florida the most distant.
Wilson said grocery store owners have been good about carrying his products, but says the marketing has changed over the years from selling through local grocery store chains to selling to warehousing operations that distribute the product over a wide area.
Obviously, the biggest change in Wilson's business career has been the automation that made the old hand work on the potato salads obsolete.
For example, the burrito operation has one person putting flour tortillas onto a conveyor belt just before an amount of filling falls onto them. Several people roll the burritos and another person places them neatly on another conveyer belt that goes into a large freezer.
In other parts of the plant, raw corn is cooked, ground and turned into a corn meal from which the taco shells and corn tortillas are cut. Those items are cooked by the thousands and packaged. Other employees, using various types of machines, fill the salad containers and others fill large containers full of base for seafood salad that go to restaurants and grocery stores.
Under strict U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for food handling, every few hours the machines are cleaned while the employees are at lunch and the area hosed down. "We try to make the very best. I think the quality is the main reason the company has continued to grow," he said.
Every day, Wilson and several of his employees sample a few items rolling off the production lines, to make certain they match the recipes, which makes it nice for them because that serves as lunch. "If a product isn't just right, it is taken off production and corrections made," Wilson said.
In addition to David Wilson, other family members working at the plant are his wife, Barbara, who is the company secretary; Larry Kramer, a son-in-law who is vice president in charge of sales; daughter Lyneve, Kramer's wife, who works in sales; one grandson who works packing orders, another grandson who works in burritos and a grandson-in-law who works in sales.