Better Made Snack Foods makes, well, better made snack foods. David Soyka samples this regional, Detroit-based snack maker noted for its potato chips made from locally grown spuds and trans-fatfree cottonseed oil and how it hopes to grow beyond its Midwest base.
Everyone wants something that’s better made – particularly in the Detroit, Mich. area where Better Made Potato Chips are part of the regional culture, like Coney Island hot dogs or Philadelphia cheese steaks. The tradition harks back to 1930, when the Depression was a time that really required a comfort food way before the term was invented. Founded by Cross Moceri and Peter Cipriano, whose first names originally served as the company’s moniker, their efforts to make a “better made” potato chip led to the brand name by which the chip maker is known today, with a highly loyal following that spread throughout Detroit and the surrounding region.
From the very beginning, the company has prided itself on using only the best ingredients and production methods. There’s no better testament to the quality of Better Made Potato Chips than the fact that of the 22 potato chip plants that were once located in Detroit, only Better Made remains in business. It has also been a regular award winner, with commendations from Hour Detroit Magazine as “Best Local Food Product;” The Detroit Free Press and Maxim Magazine as “Best Potato Chip,” and The Detroit News as “Best Salty Snack,” among other accolades. It is also the “official potato chip” of three Detroit professional sports teams: the Lions, the Tigers and the Pistons.
“Of course, the giant in potato chips is Frito-Lay,” notes Mike Schena, president. “We’re able to go up against the largest potato chip manufacturer by providing a consistently high quality, price competitive potato chip that’s not only a good value, but is a trans fat-free healthy snack. We’re particularly popular here in the inner city and with the mom and pop stores where we’ve always been carried. People have known and trusted the brand name for generations. But we’re also on the shelves of larger grocery and convenience stores such as Kroger and Walgreens as well as the big box stores such as Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club throughout Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio and surrounding areas, as well as parts of Canada. However, because of the fresh nature of our product, it’s impractical for us to expand beyond the immediate region.”
Today, Better Made uses 45 million pounds of choice potatoes every year, primarily sourced from local farmers in the Michigan area supplanted by Florida, Missouri and Indiana during the off-season, combined with all natural resources and a cooking process that ensures product is untouched by human hands from the time potatoes leave the farm until they are consumed. Potatoes are purchased in bulk (45,000 to 65,000 pounds per truck load) and unloaded by hydraulic lift from delivery trucks to a 250,000-squarefoot warehouse and manufacturing center in Detroit. The potatoes are then deposited into storage bins that can hold up to 50,000 pounds. From there, in the initial processing phase, potatoes flow from storage to a large hopper that feeds them into a destoner, a piece of equipment full of water where potatoes are thoroughly washed and conveyed via spiral lift auger to one of four modern peeler machines. Each peeler has 23 abrasive rollers. Once the skins are removed, potatoes are inspected for quality, with unacceptable spuds removed before the next stage of processing.
Next, the potato slices are conveyed to a revolving slicer with eight cutting blades. The sliced potatoes then proceed into a rotating mesh drum running in water to further clean them and remove starch. From there, they head to one of four fryers, high temperature controlled cookers collectively capable of processing 10,000 pounds of potatoes an hour using only 100 percent trans fat-free cottonseed oil. The cooked chips are then lightly salted, inspected and automatically advanced by an overhead conveyor system to automatic packaging machines that weigh, form, fill, and seal the finished bags. The whole process takes only seven minutes from the bin to the bag. In a typical week, 1,250,000 pounds of potatoes are processed into crunchy potato chips in a variety of seasoned flavorings, including “bar-b-q,” red hot, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, and, its latest variety, sweet bar-b-q.
And it’s not just potato chips that are Better Made. Indeed, the corporate name is Better Made Snack Foods, and other products include popcorn, crunchy chips, pretzels, pork rinds, tortilla chips, beef jerky, chocolate covered potato chips and pretzels, salsas and cheese dips, most of which are made by contract manufacturers and sold under the Better Made brand. Indeed, Better Made has hopes that its popular popcorn and potato sticks, a sort of French Fries in a bag, can be leveraged into nationally distributed brands.
IN A CRUNCH
“We’re looking to expand beyond the Michigan area with these categories as a way to grow the company beyond our core product in a commodity market that currently is, frankly, horrible,” Schena explains. “Last year, we were paying 35 cents a pound for cottonseed oil. Today, we’re paying 95 cents a pound. We’re talking about a $2 million increase in our production costs. That is a huge problem.” Keep in mind that every 100 pounds of raw potatoes results in, at best, 25 pounds of final potato chip product of which there is only 13 or 14 pounds of potatoes. The price of potatoes has also increased by over $2 per hundred pounds.
Schena attributes the price hikes to several factors. “Recently, the Midwest has not had favorable weather conditions for growing and there have been shortages because of low yields. Heavy rains and flooding have shut some farms down completely. What’s making this all worse is the big interest now in producing ethanol, which has further depleted supplies and driven prices up. On top of that, you’ve got a weak U.S. dollar. You can’t do much about the weather, but the government could be doing something about this ethanol situation, a problem it is responsible for creating. The government needs to back off on the incentives its providing for ethanol production and let the acreage go back to producing crop for foods, not fuel.”
Better Made is responding in two ways: smaller bag sizes and price increases. “In the inner city, our most popular sizes are the one ounce, two- and a-half and three-ounce bags,” Schena says. “For grocery stores, it’s nine and 11 ¾ ounces, and for the big box stores it’s 20 ounces. Reducing the size of the packaging and the contents a little helps keep us at around the same price point consumers are used to. It reduces sticker shock somewhat.”
Schena says that even with price increases, and even during a weak economy, people still see potato chips and other snacks as something they might cut down on, but will not cut out entirely. “Snacks are a way of rewarding yourself. It’s not such a big ticket item that it’s ever going to bust your budget.”
He also sees new product categories and flavorings as a way to feed future growth. “Gourmet flavorings are particularly popular with people who have a little more discretionary income. Kettle made chips, which are a little more expensive but are more flavorful, are also growing in popularity.”
Indeed, Schena says that Better Made is developing a new popcorn category made in an oil kettle cooker. “We’re looking to bring back the movie theater experience of popcorn to grocery store shelves. Most packaged popcorn is heated with air, which just doesn’t provide as much flavor as an oil-popped product. And in addition to better tasting popcorn that’s more like what you’d get in a movie theater, we’re offering gourmet flavors like sun dried tomato, as well as the usual white and cheddar cheese.”
Schena says that a national roll out, with the future possibility of international distribution, of the Better Made branded kettle popcorn and potato sticks is the next step up for the company. And he has the best market research to back it up. “I’ve got eight grandchildren who always test our products and they love the snacks.”
And why wouldn’t they. After all, they’re Better Made.