A delightful combination of bloated corn, cheese powder and MSG, the humble Cheeto has left a permanent orange stain on the world. But long before Katy Perry dressed up as a Flamin’ Hot for Halloween and Lord Bezos posted his grubby billionaire cheese fingers to Instagram, cows were the first ones feasting on what would later become the famous Cheeto.
The story begins in Beloit, Wisconsin, where an animal feed manufacturer called the Flakall Corporation was producing corn-based food for livestock in the 1930s. Their approach was simple enough: Pour corn kernels into a grinder to break the grains into smaller, more edible pieces. According to a 1932 patent, “This flaking of the feed is of advantage because it avoids loss of a good percentage of material which otherwise is thrown off as dust, and gives a material which keeps better in storage by reason of the voids left between the flakes, such that there can be proper aeration, not to mention the important fact that flaked feed is more palatable and easily digested by the animal.”
This is where we first begin to get a glimpse at the original Cheeto, or cheese puffs more generally speaking. In order to prevent the grinder from clogging, Flakall workers would sometimes pour moistened kernels into the machine, which came out as puffy ribbons, sort of like strips of popcorn, after coming into contact with the hot machinery. You can check out how that works in the video below.
Upon seeing these corn puffs, Edward Wilson, a curious Flakall flake operator, snuck some home, seasoned them with cheddar cheese and salt, and decided to call them Korn Kurls. They were such a sensation that Flakall ended up filing another patent in 1939 for a machine that would strictly pump out Korn Kurls, and shortly thereafter changed their name to the Adams Corporation, separating themselves from their past production of animal feed. You can see some vintage photos and ads for Korn Kurls below, provided to me by potato chip historian Alan “Toga Chip Guy” Richer.
Of course, as with any invention, there are several other claimants to the cheese puff throne. In 1946, Elmer Candy Corporation developed a similar product called CheeWees, and the popular Cheez Doodles came about in the late 1950s. In the midst of this cheese puff rush, the Cheeto was invented by the Frito Company in 1948, using more or less the same technology, and national distribution helped it quickly take over the market.
Decades later, in the 1990s, Adams International was purchased by a company called Maddox Metal Works, which manufactures machines for the production of snack foods to this day. And while Korn Kurls would eventually fade into a cheesy oblivion, Maddox would go on to provide machines to Frito-Lay for the purpose of pumping out Cheetos. In that sense, the legacy of the Korn Kurl lives on.
As for Cheetos, call me a cow, but repurposed animal feed never tasted so good.