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The origins of Top the Tater are a mystery. Can anyone get to the bottom of it?

Getty Images / Kemps

Getty Images / Kemps

Earlier this year, the City Pages team decided it would be a “good” and “fun” idea to taste-test the newish flavors of Top the Tater, ranking them alongside the onion-and-chive original.

Because assigning somewhat arbitrary values to snack foods is what we do best, we also figured researching the story would require very little work. Visit Cub. Obtain and eat dips. Visit Top the Tater’s website. Obtain and synthesize information about how and when these dips were created.

But a trip to top the tater dot com in search of history led us to a landing page about the “legend” of the Midwest snacking staple. “The story of Top the Tater is a complicated one to tell,” it reads. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of lost manuscripts (mostly leather-bound) were probably penned on its history, all with conflicting accounts of how and why it came to be.”

Ha, okay, sure. Funny stuff from the folks in marketing. But seriously: Where did Top the Tater come from?

Reaching out to get the real scoop resulted only in more mystery. “The legend might not be 100 percent accurate, but you’d be surprised how much Top the Tater history has been lost to time,” brand manager Josh Brock said. “Our head of marketing at Kemps has been at the company for over 30 years, and according to her it’s just always been.”

That... didn’t sound possible? But quickly fact-checking his claim—Googling various combinations of “Top the Tater history” and “Top the Tater inventor”—didn’t turn up any helpful information either, and mostly made us hungry.

“Unfortunately, archives from that time are non-existent,” Brock said. “All that to say, we could use all the investigative journalism help we can get.”

[Wipes chip crumbs from shirt]

Josh…

[Snaps suspenders]

Don’t mind if we do.

***

Brands throw around words like “iconic” and “cult favorite” a lot, and Top the Tater is no different. It’s the job of a serious investigative journalist to take those claims with a healthy heaping of salt. Perhaps a fistful of chives.

But if you live in Minnesota, you know it to be true: Top the Tater is a requisite. It’s delicious and ubiquitous, a staple at cookouts and graduation parties and trips to the cabin (and often anniversaries and bridal showers and Thanksgiving dinners).

“Ask any Minnesotan about dips, and the first words you’ll hear will likely be ‘Kemps Top the Tater,’” the Food Network wrote in their guide to the best dip in every state. Tasting Table has also recognized Top the Tater—“sour cream freckled with chives and onions (and a little MSG)”—as the state’s official condiment. (A milk-based dip with nary a pepper to be found? What could be more Minnesotan?)

You can get images of the beloved little tubs on everything from a fanny pack to a phone case—and people do, though they’re not content to leave it at that. Have you ever considered, for example, that with a few strategically punched holes and a length of twine, you can turn a Top tub into a purse? One woman did.

Then there’s truly next-level fan behavior like that of Darys Bauman from Delano, Minnesota, who made dehydrated Top the Tater for a fridge-less canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters. (He tells us it’s not hard to prep your own portage-friendly snack: “Simply spread the awesomeness thinly on dehydrator trays outfitted with fruit leather sheets, turn the dehydrator on, and dehydrate until it’s completely dry.”) Or Anna Johnson, who packed a tub of Top the Tater and a bag of Old Dutch Ripple Chips to use as props for her engagement photos.

After introducing Top the Tater to her fiancé, Tanner, Anna Johnson brought a tub to their engagement shoot.

After introducing Top the Tater to her fiancé, Tanner, Anna Johnson brought a tub to their engagement shoot. Krista Pascoe Photography

“I’ve always grown up with Top the Tater in the house. Always,” she says. “I introduced my fiancé to it, and I introduced his friends to it, too.... There’s only two of us in the house, but we always get the family size.”

Now, the dip is good. This we know. One City Pages writer has publicly proclaimed to be a bottom for Top the Tater; another believes, given enough time and test kitchen access, it could reasonably be turned into a serviceable savory ice cream.

As for why it’s so good?

To start, TTT is made with real sour cream—lots of dips out there are oil-based. “It’s full-leaded, if you will,” says Rachel Kyllo, senior vice president of growth and innovation at Kemps. It gets its onion-y, chive-y kick from the same proprietary blend of spices they’ve used since day one, a recipe guarded almost as closely as the Coca-Cola formula.

“It’s such a funny little product,” she says. “It’s highly addictive, and it’s just got this little personality.”

That personality is part of its popularity, too. Take the tub itself: an almost offensive shade of green, a logo that looks straight out of the ’70s, the carton taller than it is wide—like no other dip on the market—ensuring you get goo all over your knuckles as you scrape chips past the half-full point. Something about it feels homey and genuine—there’s an unassuming comfort, like you’re pulling it from your grandmother’s fridge every time.

“We know: Don’t mess with something that’s not broken,” says Kyle Punton, “director of dipping” for TTT. “The original green Top the Tater tub with the goofy shape... it makes no sense, but people love it. We’re not changing it.” They haven’t even put the Kemps logo on there, so great is the concern about messing with success.

“The brand doesn’t try too hard, right?” Punton says. “It just feels Midwestern to its roots.”

***

If you’re accustomed to seeing Top the Tater next to sour cream in the dairy aisle, you might not know you’re one of a lucky group of dippers: TTT is pretty much only sold in the Upper Midwest.

“I would bet that a lot of people, even the crazy tater-heads, don’t know that it’s made in Minnesota,” Punton says. There’s nothing that screams Minnesota about it, “But it is a Minnesota brand.”

Kyllo says that while they haven’t been able to determine when exactly it was launched, they do know it was created by a Minnesota-based dairy cooperative (essentially, a bunch of farmers who came together as a group) called Mid-America Dairy Farms. The cooperative marketed a bunch of dairy products under that name in the early 1970s, and in the ’80s, Kemps came to own Top the Tater when they purchased the Farmington factory where it was being made.

Busy with its existing and extensive line of dairy products, the new owner paid almost no attention to those tater tubs at first.

“Top the Tater was just this little product in a green package that chugged along, grew a little bit every year, and quite frankly was kind of a distant cousin,” Kyllo says.

But sales kept quietly growing. When Kemps did take notice and dug into the data, they found a few Minnesota cities—the Duluth area in particular—where sales were almost confusingly, disproportionately high. They were baffled.

It’s also somehow entirely trend-proof. Consider the name; Top the Tater was created to top potatoes. Only in the last 10 or 15 years has it been considered more of a dip. (“I mean, who eats baked potatoes on a regular basis anymore?” Punton laughs.)

TTT sales stayed strong through the anti-fat diet crusades of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and they haven’t faltered now, even as more and more Americans go vegan or dairy-free. Kyllo says there’s just never been a significant dip (!) in sales. In fact, with snack consumption way up thanks to a certain stay-at-home order and the munching time inherent therein? “Top the Tater sales have skyrocketed since about St. Patrick’s Day,” Punton says. “The last month has been absolutely bananas.”

Here in Minnesota, at least. Punton says as you get farther and farther from the Tater’s point of origin, it sells less and less. People don’t know it, and they’re less likely to try it. (Case in point: Anna Johnson’s fiancé, Tanner, is from western Wisconsin, but he and his family had never heard of it.)

Only recently have sales in Wisconsin and the Dakotas picked up, and though they continue expanding—moving closer to Chicago and down into Iowa, largely thanks to a partnership with Hy-Vee—popularity still isn’t booming elsewhere. It’s part of the reason those new flavors come in a shorter, squatter, less 1970s-looking tub: The idea is to let folks know, visually, “You’re supposed to dip stuff in me!”

Meanwhile, Midwest expats clamor for it. People fly with it smuggled in their luggage or cross state lines with 10 tubs crammed into a cooler. They’ll flood Top the Tater’s Facebook with requests to bring the dip to their city/state/country, the dip equivalent of “Come to Brazil!” But while it was briefly available for nationwide delivery thanks to Local Crate, and made appearances in Aldi stores around the country during the 2018 Super Bowl, for now it’s most widely available in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas.

“We wish all these people who have had Top the Tater and love it would get jobs at grocery chains as dairy buyers,” Punton chuckles. “You go to some of these places, and when it’s not in their area, it’s never been something they’ve known, it’s hard to get distribution.”

Until that happens, as the bright-green brand often tells troubled folks who’ve traveled away from Minnesota: Want TTT? Better move to the Midwest.

***

So there’s your “where,” and a pretty good explanation of your “how” and “why.” But... who? When?

We decided to go to the top: the National Milk Producers Federation. They pointed us to Dairy Farmers of America, which Mid-America Farms would eventually become part of. The DFA folks said they believe Top the Tater was developed and launched by Mid-America Farms in the 1970s, before the collective joined their ranks.

“Unfortunately,” spokesperson Kim O’Brien said, “the early history of Top the Tater has been lost through the years.”

As we’ve already covered, the Kemps camp doesn’t know its origins either. Brock said that they recently spoke with an octogenarian retired executive who was with the Mid-American Dairy company in the 1970s and said TTT has been a Minnesota staple since at least the mid-1950s. But the trail ended there.

Your pals at City Pages were really scraping the bottom of the tub here, source-wise. But we lobbed one last dairy hail mary: an email to the Minnesota Historical Society.

That message eventually landed in the inbox of MNHS reference librarian Christopher True, who decided the best course of action would be to track down old trade publications.

Chris True

Chris True

Not long after, we got an encouraging follow-up: “After some digging, I found a mention in the April 1962 Monthly News of the Twin City Milk Producers Association,” True reported, attaching a few photos of the issue to prove it. “It would appear that Top the Tater (under the Recipe Book brand) was released to the market in March of 1962!”

There it is.

Top the Tater hasn’t “always been,” but it’s certainly been around. Now 58 years old, TTT was created the same year the first American astronaut orbited the earth, when the average home cost $12,500. Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album had just hit shelves. JFK was alive and kicking.

“As far as more details as to the ‘history’ of Top the Tater, it would appear that (according to some stories in later issues of the aforementioned Monthly News) there was an uptick in sour cream sales, and the TC Milk Producers Association was keen to cash in on the trend,” True wrote. “Later volumes, particularly the ones in the early ’70s, mention the first ‘new’ flavor of Top (bacon!), and there are some mentions about sour cream’s ascendance in popularity.”

It’s still unclear who the mastermind behind TTT’s secret spice blend is, and while we really wanted to take a look at those trade publications in person, True’s reply came before COVID-19 shut down the Minnesota Historical Society’s reference library. Right now, neither he nor we can get back in for more info.

If you’re like, “It was my grandfather! Grandpa Joe invented it!” please email us, so that we might update our story—and thank the man.

Otherwise, for now, it looks like the TTT “legend” landing page was telling the truth after all. “While archeologists, biologists, sociologists, and meteorologists will continue to debate theories until the end of time, the truth is that Top the Tater’s origin has been lost to the ages.”