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.

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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.

“I arrived in New York with 15 cents in my pocket. I couldn’t speak a word of English,” he would later say, long after changing his name to the easier-to-pronounce Marcus Nalley.

Nalley Valley of Tacoma
Marcus Nalley started his business by cooking, bagging, and selling “Saratoga chips” door to door before expanding into sales of 50 pounds of potatoes to local grocery stores in 1918. By the time of this 1951 photo, his one-man business had expanded to become one of Tacoma’s leading employers. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

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.

Nalley and his wife would later divorce. Both would remarry. He would marry Frances Moore in 1935, while she would marry Fabio Marcantelli in 1941.

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.

Nalley Valley of Tacoma
Marcus Nalley first began making potato chips in the penthouse of the Bonneville Hotel, which had been built in 1888 as the Hotel Rochester. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

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.

Nalley Valley of Tacoma
Nalley’s delivery trucks are lined up outside the company plant along Sprague Avenue in 1923, when the company’s slogan was, “If it’s Nalley’s, it’s good.” Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

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.

Nalley Valley of Tacoma
Nalley entered the pickle industry during World War II when it consolidated operations onto a 22-acre site along South Tacoma that has since been dubbed Nalley Valley. Nalley’s produced pickles at the plant for 60 years. Dean Foods, the company that purchased Nalley’s pickle operation in 2002, then shut down the pickle plant in Tacoma. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

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.