As the president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, it's Muir's job to make sure that association is ingrained in the consciousness of everyone, everywhere. In his four years on the job, Muir has translated his experience working for food giants like Con Agra, General Mills and R.T. French into a revitalization of Idaho's most famous crop.
From a YouTube.com-based promotional campaign to Spuddy, a new mascot, Muir is busy bringing the state's prized tubers to a new demographic. He took some time out to talk to BW about his life with potatoes.
What was it that convinced you to take this job?
One of the coups de gras for me was, any brand whose name appears on most people's license plates, that's cool. And that's a brand that the state obviously is proud of, and it was something I felt I could continue to build on and strengthen. I felt that its viability had waned in the past few years, and it needs to be strengthened.
How did the Idaho potato wane?
One of the first things I had to do when I came up here was defend keeping "Famous Potatoes" on our license plates. Because some of the folks, particularly in the Boise area, felt that the state needs to move on from its agricultural roots and be known for more than just potatoes. My philosophy was, "Why not build upon your success, rather than just eliminate it?" I mean, be proud of your agricultural roots.
When I got here, what had happened was the Atkins Diet was in full swing. Potatoes were the poster child of what was wrong with America's diet, with an emphasis on french fries. That's what I was faced with ... no one had ever really done anything to fight back, and I felt we needed to fight directly back. Within my first two months here, I had produced a new commercial that went directly against Atkins Diet and pointed out all the nutritional facts about how good an Idaho potato really is. And within a month after that, I had retained Denise Austin to be our spokesperson, who is America's most well-known fitness expert. And if she believes potatoes are good for you, maybe you should reconsider. So she's now featured in several advertisement that we have done.
Is this part of a larger strategy to make the potato cool?
It absolutely is. [There was] the ITuber contest, obviously playing off the tuber, and that went on YouTube. The research we've conducted shows that out of people 25 or older, Idaho is absolutely the potato they look for. The 25 and younger group, Idaho's still their strong preference, but it's not as strong. So we have got to be cool to the younger generation, and the way you do that is to go into their media. That's why we launched into the Internet. We had Dawn Wells, Mary Ann of Gilligan's Island, show you how you can prepare an Idaho potato without using a potato peeler. The idea was that that would be picked up by 17-year-olds who would send that video to their parents and grandmas and say, "Grandma, I'm going to show you a new way to peel a potato. You don't need a potato peeler anymore. I'm going to show you at Thanksgiving how to do this."
So all of a sudden, the Idaho potato is cool and edgy?
Absolutely. Cool and edgy.
What were your impressions of Gov. Otter's trade mission to Cuba?
I was very impressed with it. We had some great business meetings, and they showed some real interest in frozen potatoes, french fries and seed potatoes. We've turned over some of those leads to our frozen processors in Idaho. We're also working with the officials to get visas to come up here to get the phytosanitary issues signed off on so they can send seed potatoes to Cuba.
Were you disappointed that North Dakota was able to sign a potato deal with Cuba first?
No. They have wanted Idaho there for a long time. Castro and his organization are going to work with all the states for a variety of different products because they'd like to open up regular trade relations with the U.S. It works to his benefit to work with all the states that are willing to work with him. Let's put it this way. Back 70 years ago, Maine was the No. 1 potato-growing region in the United States. So they were first, but that didn't stop us from becoming No. 1.
Do you worry about fad diets?
Yes. Now diets are wrapping themselves around the glycemic index, and saying that potatoes are high on the glycemic index and that converts to glucose quickly. Well, they measure glycemic index by looking at the food on a solo basis, and no one eats that way. No one eats a carrot and nothing else. If you did that, the glycemic index for potatoes is higher than chocolate cake and Coca-Cola. Which would tell you, if you based your diet on that, you should eat Coca-Cola and chocolate cake.
Did you ever imagine your career would revolve around potatoes?
No. I've always been in foods, because my career has always been in the food industry because I love to eat; I love variety, and it's not going to go away. Fads will come and go, but food will always be here.
How do you convert Idahoans who are sick of being recognized only for potatoes?
Wherever I've gone throughout the whole world, as soon as I say "Idaho," they say potatoes. They always say it with a smile.
What's your favorite way to eat a potato?
Probably my favorite way is to bake it up, and then I put grilled chicken, salsa, black beans, jalapenos, light sour cream and black pepper, and it's a meal.
It's a big year coming up for the potato.
The United Nations has declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato. We're jumping all over that one, too.
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