You’re driving down the freeway, heading home from work. You’re hungry, thinking about what you might have for dinner. You turn a bend and nearly slam on your brakes. You think you’re hallucinating. In front of you is a 72-foot-long flatbed trailer carrying a 13-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide, 8,000-pound potato. But it’s not a dream—you’ve just stumbled upon the Big Idaho Potato.
“Just driving down the freeway, I’ll have people come up alongside me and their jaws will be on their lap and the camera will be in their hand, and they’re waving and smiling,” says Melissa Bradford, the driver of the Big Idaho Potato. “They’ll pass me and I’ll pass them. And they’ll pass me and I’ll pass them. They can’t seem to get enough of it.”
The Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) launched the Big Idaho Potato Tour in 2012 as a one-year road trip campaign to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding, and to promote the state’s most recognizable agricultural product: the potato. Over a span of six months, the truck visited dozens of cities, traveled 25,000 miles, and drove past thousands of commuters and travelers. By the end of the tour, fans didn’t want the giant spud to disappear. So the IPC brought it back.
Parades and spec-taters
Driving around with a massive potato hitched to your vehicle every day is a bit like leading a never-ending parade. People cheer for you, honk at you, and follow you all day. You’re tagged on social media, you take photos with families, and you’re asked to come back to events next year. And that’s exactly what the Tater Team loves about the job.
Now in its seventh season, the Big Idaho Potato Tour is run by Bradford and two best friends from Idaho—Kaylee Wells and Jessica Coulthard. The trio have made careers out of traveling the country while towing a giant vegetable.
Wells and Coulthard met in high school and quickly became friends. They parted temporarily in college when Wells attended Boise State University and Coulthard attended the University of Idaho, but they reunited in 2016 when Coulthard was looking for her first job after college. “When I saw the job listing for the Big Idaho Potato Tour, I called Kaylee and I was like, ‘Would you want to travel around America with a giant potato?’” Coulthard says. “And she said, ‘Of course!’”
Now in their third season with the spud, Coulthard and Wells are often publicly recognized by their stage name: the Tater Twins (Bradford is known as “Spud Racer”).
“People ask us all the time if we’re related, especially since we always wear the same uniforms, too. We’re around each other all the time so I’m sure we have the same mannerisms as well,” Coulthard says. “We kind of just rolled with it. People love it.”
A Big Helping
If the Big Idaho Potato were a real vegetable, it would take more than 7,000 years to grow, weigh 8,000 pounds, and produce 20,217 servings of mashed potatoes. But instead of serving up a potato feast, the Tater Team is using their visibility and their community partnerships to give back to local communities along their journey.
In its first three years, the Big Idaho Potato Tour had two national charity partners who sponsored the trip and supported local communities across the country. While the partnerships were mutually beneficial, in 2015, the IPC decided they wanted to create a new mission for the tour by launching a new charity: A Big Helping.
During the six-month tour, the Tater Team helps identify charities across the country in need of “A Big Helping.” At local events, they set up signature boards and encourage attendees to leave a signature in support of local organizations. Afterwards, the IPC works with selected charities to meet their specific needs. They offer support in the form of a $500 donation, awareness raising, or food donations, or sometimes all three.
The Tater Team loves giving back to local organizations in need of resources and support, but they’ve been surprised to find that these community members are eager to reciprocate the kindness.
“There are nice people everywhere you go. There’s always someone willing to help you out,” says Coulthard. “We’ve gotten our truck stuck once before in a little town in Kansas. These people came to our rescue and they brought this huge jack for our truck. It was crazy because they just pulled off to the side of the road and jumped right in there. It’s just cool to see that anybody will be there to help you.”
Starch your engines
The Big Idaho Potato Tour has taken Wells and Coulthard to places they might not have otherwise discovered on their own. This year they’ve already been to Buckhannon, West Virginia; Winona, Minnesota; Reno, Nevada; and dozens of communities in between. On the third and Fourth of July, the Big Idaho Potato will be visiting St. Louis for America’s Birthday Parade.
“The best part about the job is just experiencing all of the places we get to go to,” says Coulthard. “We go to small towns and huge cities and everywhere in between, meeting different people from different areas of the country.”
The toughest part of the tour? Finding a place to park the giant potato. “That is one of the daily challenges,” says Coulthard. “But we’ve mastered it. The satellite view on maps helps a lot.”
The Big Idaho Potato Tour is Wells’ and Coulthard’s first job out of college, and Bradford’s first truck driving job after taking a break to model for Duluth Trading Company. Each Tater Team member agrees that while the experience of driving around with a four-ton potato is incomparable, it’s the communities that keep them coming back, year after year.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the fans, because if people didn’t want us to come back to events, the tour wouldn’t keep growing,” says Wells. “When you see the potato truck, it just brings you happiness and joy. You can’t explain it. People have a smile on their face, and their excitement is definitely a reason why I come back.”