Slices of Heaven

Potato chips have deep roots in Ohio

Inside a diminutive sky-blue, cinderblock dwelling on a quiet rural street in Stark County’s Beach City, a time-honored, slightly hypnotic ritual is underway.

Whole potatoes ride up a conveyor belt. They tumble through a stainless steel drum that flicks the resulting slices like Frisbees into water. The peels proceed to a hissing fryer the size of a toddler’s swimming pool, into which 55 pounds of the slices are raked through soybean oil sizzling at 305°. A conveyor extracts them. A fryer tender salts them. The fried chips ride up an automated packer. The emerging bags dangle in single file along a cast aluminum rotary machine sealer. All told, about 7,000 bags of the kettle-cooked Corell’s Chips will be shipped off this week to Akron-area grocery chains.

At the helm of this small but mighty operation is third-generation owner Dan Meenan. He bears no relation to the original brother-owners who started the business in the late 1930s in their garages in Loudonville and Strasburg. An entrepreneur looking for a new business opportunity, Meenan bought the homespun chipmaker that was for sale in 1994.

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When you ask him what has changed in the last 20 years, he pauses. “It’s more about what hasn’t changed,” he answers. “Our potato chip recipe has always been the same.”

Twelve miles north in Massillon, Odell Gainey is tending to his version of kettle-cooked potato shavings and following the same secret recipe he created when he unveiled Gold’N Krisp in 1963, just one year after his in-laws shuttered Kitch’n Cook’d potato chip business in Canal Fulton.

“We only have a staff of seven, so we distribute regionally, but we have received calls from soldiers in Afghanistan requesting an overseas order,” Gainey says. “The special requests from other states and countries make my day.”

Sure, potato chips all have common denominators—potatoes, salt, and oil—but we’re fiercely loyal to our regional makers. Snack makers with deep histories are peppered throughout Ohio, which is one of the largest potato chip producers in the U.S. Perhaps those roots are what add to the flavor and appeal of each unique, beloved brand.

Northwest Ohioans are loyal to Ballreich’s, a fourth-generation operation in Tiffin. Dayton’s prized Mikesell’s is one of the oldest continuous chipmakers in the U.S., founded in 1910. Cincinnati’s favorite is Grippo’s. Swing through mid-state, and you’ll see Jones (Mansfield) and Conn’s (Zanesville).

A concentration of small and large-scale operations orbits the Akron-Canton-Massillon metropolitan area. Shearer’s is among the favorite chip producers from the region.

“I believe that has a lot to do with the people. In areas like Massillon and Canton, for example, consumers love their chips and are often very loyal to the regional companies that reside here,” says Steve Surmay, who began working at Shearer’s Snack Foods in Massilion as a late teen in 1982. He began in maintenance, distribution, and delivery, and now works as a senior vice president overseeing co-packaging operations with partner Frito-Lay.

Shearer’s is one of the more recent players to enter the potato chip industry in Ohio, at 36 years old. Nonetheless, the black and red labeled bags are a brand name in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Meanwhile, the company continues to gobble up the market share in the snack foods industry with its expanded private label products.

Crunch on this

A nod to the accidental discovery of the potato chip goes to New York, although industrious Ohio propelled the industry’s movement.

Fried potatoes were a common menu item in the East Coast region in the late 18th century. But in 1853, a guest of a posh resort in Saratoga Springs complained that his potatoes were too thick to eat and sent them back to the kitchen. The cook, George Crum, was insulted. He exaggerated the preparation, thinly slicing, frying, and salting the potatoes. What became known as Saratoga Chips were an unintended hit.

Cleveland’s own William Tappenden took the chip popularity to the next level in 1895. He became the nation’s first potato chip wholesaler when he began delivering potato chips by horse-drawn wagon to Cleveland neighborhood stores. Demand increased, and he subsequently transformed his barn into one of the nation’s first chip-making factories. In 1931, Tappenden and his fellow Cleveland chippers formed the Ohio Potato Chip Institute, the predecessor of today’s international trade industry powerhouse, the Snack Food Association.

Chip companies continued to sprout up throughout the 20th century, though many eventually folded due to building fires, industry consolidation, or competition. Today, Ohio has 10 potato chip manufacturers. “At one point, I think Ohio had hundreds of potato chip companies. I think every county must’ve had at least one potato chip maker,” says Brian Reis, third-generation owner of Ballreich’s in Tiffin.

Seneca County is proud to have incubated Ballreich’s, which a World War I army baker and his wife started in 1920 in their garage, using a copper kettle to heat wood scraps. Local farmers delivered 100-pound burlap sacks of potatoes to Fred and Ethel Ballreich’s basement. The couple made the chips, and Fred pedaled them door-to-door on his bicycle. Ballreich’s became a regionally loved brand.

“We were comfortable in Northwest Ohio for decades,” Reis says.

The company grew wary of complacency, however, as more family-owned potato chip makers surrendered to the corporate giants. In 2006, the family formed a strategic plan to scale up its geographic footprint and product line.

The fourth-generation company now has 30 varieties of snack foods, and distributes throughout Ohio, Michigan, and even Mexico. A non-GMO potato chip line will roll out in 2016.

“We want to stay true to what we’ve been doing the last 95 years, but want to be innovative enough that we’ll be going strong for the next 100 years,” says Haley Thomas, sales and marketing director, and great-granddaughter of co-founder Carl Ballreich.

The company remains true to its roots, quite literally. Ballreich’s headquarters still confound people searching for the address on their GPS because its production facility is nestled in a residential area and in the backyard of the founding Ballreichs’ home. Nearly half of Ballreich’s potato crop still comes from farms 15 minutes away.

That intersection of history and vision is the recipe for success and their humble growth.

“We want to become a leader in the industry without attracting too much attention or being squished by one of the big companies,” Reis says.