Charles Elmer Doolin, founder of the Frito Company, businessman, inventor, farmer, and board member, was born on January 10, 1903, in Kansas City, Kansas. He was the son of Charles Bernard Doolin and Daisy Dean (Stephenson) Doolin. When he was a small child, the family moved to San Antonio. C. E. Doolin graduated from Brackenridge High School. He married Faye Floree Richards in 1928, and their son Ronald Elmer Doolin was born in 1929. The marriage ended in 1941, and Doolin was awarded custody of Ronald.
Doolin’s father, C. B. Doolin, was an engineer who invented a laminated fabric for tire casings (this may have been the precursor of the steel belt in steel-belted tires) and a mechanical oil can for automotive oil, among other things. He taught both of his sons (Charles Elmer Doolin and Earl Bernard Doolin) about mechanical engineering and about writing patent applications for their inventions. As a teenager, C. E. Doolin worked in his father’s auto repair garage/tire shop. He later used this early training to teach his sales force how to get more wear out of their tires. The family also owned the Highland Park Confectionary in San Antonio, and it was at the confectionary that the Frito corn chip was born.
Ice cream sold at the confectionary wasn’t as creamy at it had been because the two companies who made it, Mistletoe Ice Cream and Dairyland, were engaging in a price war, and Doolin was looking for a new treat in order to diversify. On July 10, 1932, he responded to an ad in the San Antonio Express. The ad, placed by Gustavo Olguin, listed for sale an original recipe for fried corn chips along with an adapted potato ricer and nineteen retail accounts. Doolin sampled the chips at Olguin’s store. He liked them and bought the small business venture for $100. He began to manufacture the chips in his mother’s kitchen with the help of his father, mother, and brother Earl.
At first the family made corn chips using Olguin’s adapted potato ricer and premade masa (corn dough) that they bought in bulk from a tortilla factory across town. They thinned the masa and extruded it through slots cut in the bottom plate of the ricer, then snipped the extruded ribbons of masa straight into boiling oil. They named their corn chips Fritos and chartered the Frito Company in September of 1932. In 1933 C. E. Doolin applied for a patent for a “hammer press” to mass produce the chips.
Thanks to Doolin’s enterprising spirit, wide-ranging interests, and attention to detail, the company quickly expanded. By 1947 it had five manufacturing plants, including offices and a plant on the West Coast, and franchises all around the country, and it had expanded to include many new snack foods like roasted peanuts, peanut butter crackers, potato chips, and fried pork skins.
C. E. Doolin came up with many innovations that are taken for granted as standard business practices today. These include his “store-door” delivery policy, which involved company salesmen stocking the product directly onto the shelves, and which he staunchly defended to grocery store managers who wanted to stock the shelves themselves. He pioneered the engineering of sales routes to assure that salesmen had adequate time for product servicing as well as their usual sales activities, and he was a leader in the area of research and development, investing substantially in research to improve performance of raw materials, manufacturing processes, and packaging. He also had the idea for clip-racks, which displayed fresh products within easy reach of customers, and he instructed his newly-minted marketing department to create signage, tear-sheets printed with Fritos-ingredient recipes, and seasonal and other grocery store displays (such as the stuffed “Frito Kid” model who rotated on a regular basis from store to store). In his travels he frequently made roadside stops to collect examples of effective or innovative advertising; he frequently brought examples back to the Fritos marketing department.
Doolin had a reputation for fairness and generosity toward his employees. He considered— and called— them collectively the “Frito Family,” and he sold them discounted company shares, gave them sizeable pensions, and often personally presented them with rewards for excellence or years of service. He mingled with his employees and invited them to socialize with each other regularly at holiday parties and other celebrations.
The Frito Company purchased Champion Chili in 1952 and purchased controlling interest in Texas Tavern (which made bean dip, among other things) in 1956. The business of both canned food companies became the new Champion Foods Division of the Frito Company. (In 1962 Champion Foods became Austex Food Division.) C. E. Doolin had numerous plans for his newly-purchased canned food. He opened an experimental fast-food stand called Tango Dairy Mart, which served Mexican-inspired canned foods like chili, tamales, enchiladas, and bean dip, and became one of the first Tex-Mex fast food places in the country. It was also the first place in Dallas to have a microwave, known back then as a radarange. Doolin diversified into other fast food enterprises, buying Dixie Enterprises, which owned Pigstands—fast food places that served barbecue sandwiches and sold bags of Fritos on the counter attached to clip-racks —and Cheesesteak of Texas. He invented cup-shaped fried tortilla shells, called Ta-cups, and served them in the Tango Dairy Mart, Pigstands, and Cheesesteaks, because fold-over fried shells, or “walking tacos,” broke when customers bit into them.
Doolin was an early investor in Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and built Casa de Fritos Restaurant in the amusement park. Casa de Fritos was first located across from the steamboat ride in ‘Main Street’ and later moved to a larger lot across from the exit to the jungle ride in Frontierland. At the restaurant they served the company’s canned Mexican-inspired foods and had a mechanical Frito Kid who talked, rolled his eyes, licked his lips, and dispensed small bags of Fritos.
In 1945 Doolin married Mary Kathryn Coleman. They had five children: Charles, Earl, Kaleta, Willadean, and Patrick Daniel. In 1980 Patrick Daniel was killed in an auto accident at the age of twenty-three.
Doolin was a follower of Dr. Herbert Shelton, an advocate of “natural hygiene,” an early system of alternative health practices. Doolin had an avid interest in what today is called health food and in the wholesomeness of the food his company manufactured.
C. E. Doolin was a master entrepreneur and had numerous business interests. With the help of an agronomist, he worked on hybridizing to create corn with the perfect flavor and texture for his corn chips. He was also involved in improving the oil the company used for frying. He was one of the first importers of sesame oil and grew corn, soybean, safflower, and sesame crops for the health food market and for his vegetable oil blend. He was involved in developing, selling, and finding new uses for cold-rolled sesame oil, and he designed recipes for and made sesame candy for the health food market.
He owned “Frito Farms” located throughout Texas. The farms were in Ellis County (near Midlothian); Denton County (near Lewisville); Guadalupe County (500 acres near Seguin); Grayson County (near Tioga); Atascosa County (near Poteet); and Dimmit County (1,200 acres near Big Wells). In an interview Doolin said, “The motivating factor for establishing the farms was cultivation of the soil, for from good soil grows good corn.” His interest in fostering a healthy environment led him to seek advice from the Texas Department of Agriculture about crop rotation, composting, and soil conservation, and to conduct experiments in these areas. The farms were also used to develop products for his businesses, to raise cattle and hogs, and to test his experimental animal feed on his own livestock. He also crossbred Brangus cattle and experimented with developing hog and cattle feeds from his own industrial waste byproducts, such as potato skins and stale chips, and from agricultural waste products such as ground mesquite trees, sesame hulls, and corn stalks.
Doolin was a member of the Southwest Agricultural Institute. He was on the board of trustees of the Texas Research Foundation (the foundation developed TRF-3, a corn hybrid used in Fritos). He was a board member of Texas Bank and Trust Company, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, Natural Food Associates (an organization to promote the growing and use of better foods from living soil), and American Natural Hygiene Society. He was a member of Texas Livestock Marketing Association of Fort Worth, San Antonio Inventors Association (charter member June 26, 1956), Dallas Athletic Club, Société des Gentilshommes Chefs de Cuisine, and National Food Distributors Association (Chicago). He was a trustee of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and committeeman of the Boy Scouts of America (Pack 579). He also belonged to the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce and was a sponsor member of the Dallas Council on World Affairs.
The Frito Company became publically traded in 1953. C. E. Doolin served as president of the company until June 10, 1959, when he became the chairman of the board. His leadership had changed a small kitchen-operated business into a leader in the snack food industry.
C. E. Doolin died of a heart attack on July 22, 1959, in Baylor Hospital in Dallas. He was fifty-six. He was buried in Restland Abbey (now Restland Memorial Park) in Dallas. At the time of his death the Frito Company employed 3,500 people and produced products throughout the nation and in foreign countries, with sales at an annual rate of $60 million. In 1961 the company merged with H. W. Lay and Company and became Frito-Lay.