Few South Sound residents know the name Marko Narancich. But all know the food products and manufacturing district that bear his Americanized name. He is best known as Marcus Nalley, the founder of Nalley Fine Foods and its namesake Nalley Valley of Tacoma. He was the pickle, potato chip, and chili king of the Pacific Northwest, a posthumous title he retains to this day since Nalley products are found in every grocery store in the state.
From Croatia to the United States
Narancich immigrated to the United States in 1903 to follow his older brothers from their home country of Croatia to the land of opportunity.
He rode the rails to Montana to work with his brothers in the copper mining camps around Butte. He worked as a cook and finessed his way to Chicago and then into a job aboard the Chicago, Milwaukee. St. Paul Railway’s “Olympian” line between the Windy City and Tacoma, where he decided to set down roots.
He fell in love with the Tacoma and started working at one of the city’s landmark hotels of the time, the Bonneville Hotel, which sat at 109 Tacoma Ave. before being demolished in 1966. Nalley became a master chef and made a signature dish, “Saratoga Chips,” a fried snack made from thinly sliced potatoes that were created by a chef in New York a half-century prior.
Nalley married his first wife, Elizabeth Cook, with a son coming later that year. Nalley then started a side hustle in 1918 by making the chips in a rented expansion of his apartment after borrowing money to buy used potato slicers. He packed them himself and sold them to grocery stores and door-to-door. A second son came along in 1923.
He started adding other products at about the time some guy named Herman Lay would make his Saratoga chips under the name Lays Potato Chips, the first national distributor of these salted starch marvels of the modern world.
A Boom for Nalley in Tacoma
Business boomed, so Nalley expanded with a facility at the corner of Sprague and 6th Avenue, now a strip mall across from Hilltop Heritage Middle School, and another at the corner of Puyallup Avenue and D Street, which is now a chartered high school. The company expanded yet again right at the dawn of World War II. This time, the 22-acre complex would be around Lawrence Street and South Tacoma Way, an area that rapidly became known as the Nalley Valley since it was the largest employer in the area. The facility allowed the company to add its now famous pickles to its offerings. Future additions would include peanut butter and stews to syrups and salad dressings.
Nalley was known for arriving at 4 a.m. daily to start work and supporting civil efforts and sports teams.
Uncle Marc’s Death and New Owners for Nalley’s Fine Foods
Nalley died in his sleep on October 25, 1962, right as the Cold War was getting hot with the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was 72.
“Our community has lost a great man and, if we are to memorialize him, let it be in the love and affection we express for our city, our fellow men, and our homeland,” the News Tribune wrote at the time. “Uncle Marc would want it that way.”
His company was sold to the W.R. Grace Co. in 1966. A parade of new owners would follow as consolidations of food product manufacturers created giants and then mega companies. Nalley brand products were either moved to other locations or ceased altogether as the decades passed.
Potato chip making in the namesake valley stopped in the mid-1990s. Nalley’s peanut butter line ended in 1998 when that division was sold to Smucker’s. Pickle making in Tacoma lasted until the turn of the millennium, and they are made elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Nalley’s signature chili is now made in Iowa.
The Tacoma facility would ultimately shut down in 2011. The items using the Nalley Fine Foods band are made today at facilities around the nation and are currently owned by Conagra Brands, the parent company of Birds Eyes, Duncan Hines, Slim Jim, Marie Callender’s and a host of others.
The property itself has been largely silent ever since, but those who have been around long enough still remember the signature smell of pickle brining that once wafted through the valley.