By Deborah Cassell
Peanut-butter-producer-turned-potato-chip-purveyor Kettle Foods hand-cooks its popular product batch by batch, the old-fashioned way. The unseasoned results are just as tasty when hot off the conveyor belt as the salted ones are when fresh out of the bag.
As a child, you may remember playing “hot potato,” a version of musical chairs in which players quickly toss a beanbag back and forth to music. The person left with the “hot potato” when the music stops is ousted from the game until one player is left and declared winner.
Today, Kettle Foods of Salem, Ore., plays its own version of this childhood game with real Russet potatoes from local growers in its native Oregon and Washington state. The company got its start some 30 years ago as a producer of bulk fruits and nuts as well as peanut butter, the latter of which it still sells today. In 1982, Kettle Foods added potato chips to its repertoire. It since has become maker of one of the best-known brands in the United States.
“Potato chips really changed the company,” says Kettle Foods ambassador Jim Green, who has been with the manufacturer since 1981, three years after it was founded by Cameron Healy.
Although “kettle-cooked” has become a common term in the potato chip category, Kettle Foods comes as close to defining the phrase as one can, hand-cooking its potato chips batch by batch in large fryers, the old-fashioned way. Through a combination of automation and employee assistance, the snack producer transforms farm-fresh potatoes into crunchy, often cleverly seasoned chips, the likes of which have developed a loyal if not cult following ... giving new meaning to “hot potatoes.”
Kettle Brand potato chips have long been a hot commodity, but recently, the company heated things up even more by opening a Gold LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) plant in Beloit, Wis. The “green” facility is located on 12 acres that include natural prairie and boasts such environmental features as wind turbines to produce on-site energy. (See “Green Card,” page 24.)
Kettle Foods also owns two acres of wetlands — home to two Great Blue Heron nests — next to its headquarters in Salem, Ore., that it stewards and restores. In addition, the 65,000-sq.-ft. Salem plant is retrofit with solar panels for alternative energy and a high-efficiency air compressor system. There, the company produces both Kettle Brand chips and Kettle Brand Bakes, a reduced-fat line that’s baked and not fried for a more healthful nutritional profile. Both products begin with the essentials: fresh potatoes and trans fat-free sunflower oil.
Nearly 100 million lb. of potatoes are processed by Kettle Foods each year. Trucks full of Russets are delivered straight from the farm to the Salem facility four to five times a day. Each 50,000-lb. load is dumped onto a conveyor belt that then goes through a quality sort and screen before placing the potatoes in one of three storage bins. According to Green, the plant doesn’t store potatoes for long — no more than a day, to be more specific.
Next, the potatoes are cleaned in a waterbath before going up an auger into a scrubber, where they are sorted by a worker who removes the undesirable ones. Because potatoes come in a variety of sizes, the employee cuts the larger ones in half. The clean spuds ride up a conveyor to production, where they are weighed one batch at a time. They then go through an automatic slicer before being fried in sunflower oil, which has a “neutral flavor,” Green notes.
Kettle Foods’ Salem facility has multiple fryers. Each one cooks a batch of potato slices at a time as an employee stirs them with a “chip rake.” Although the company has tried other means of stirring the chips, Green says it kept coming back to the rake. In fact, the original “golden rake” is on display in the lobby of the Salem headquarters.
Once a batch of chips is fried, it goes up a shaker-conveyor that gently moves the chips by vibration, separating them into a single layer. An optical sorter then examines each chip and eliminates any with imperfections. The chips also are hand-sorted by an employee to further ensure their quality as they travel toward the packaging line. Next, they are dry-seasoned in a tumbler. During Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, Kettle Brand Krinkle Cut chips were the product du jour.
After being seasoned, the chips go down a form-fill-seal machine. Bags start out as rows of flat film that are stamped with a date code before rolling over a frame and being filled with product. Jaws pack and seal the top of one bag and the bottom of another, Green points out. Kettle Foods redesigned its packaging about two years ago to make it easier for consumers to find their flavor, he adds.
A collator stacks the bags before employees place them in what the company calls “shoppable pallets,” which go directly to retailers. Each pallet features the Kettle Brand logo and tagline — “A natural obsession” — on all four sides. Up to five pallets are stacked on top of one another. The pallets are stored in a warehouse, where raw products — everything but potatoes and oil — also are inventoried. There, they are shrink-wrapped for delivery.
Bags of chips are shipped out of the Salem facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to supermarkets and natural food stores in all 50 states, as well as other parts of North America, Japan, Guam and Western Europe. It turns out Americans aren’t the only ones in love with Kettle Brand. The company also has a plant in Norwich, England, where “crisps” — not to be confused with British “chips,” or French fries — are quite popular.
“It’s a similar snack culture,” Green notes.
Regardless of the retail destination, in today’s competitive game of hot potato, Kettle Foods is a clear-cut, -fried and -baked winner. SF&WB
Kettle Foods has gone the extra “green” mile to make its new Beloit, Wis., plant environmentally friendly through several sustainable practices.
The 73,000-sq.-ft. facility sits on 12 acres, 40% of which will be restored to natural prairie so that employees soon will have a plant with a view. More than 35% of building materials for the site were sourced from within 500 miles of the project. In addition, the plant filters and reuses 3.4 million gallons of potato wash water; uses premium, high-efficiency equipment to reduce natural gas and electricity use; converts cooking oil into biodiesel; and uses extensive ventilation to protect indoor air quality. Last, but not least, the rooftop features 18 wind turbines that generate enough energy to produce 56,000 bags of potato chips each year. The remaining majority of energy usage is offset by the purchase of 100% wind power via renewable energy credits.
“Sustainability has been built into our DNA from the beginning,” says Jim Green, Kettle Foods ambassador.
As a result of its efforts, the Beloit plant has earned Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council under its Green Building Rating System for design, construction and operation for high-performance green buildings. LEED-certified plants must meet the following human and environmental health criteria: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.
Not only is the Beloit plant environmentally sound, but it also has served to improve the cost-efficiency of distribution for Kettle Brand across the United States, according to Tim Fallon, president and general manager, North America. Sustainability is the company’s niche, he says.
As Green asserts, “Industry and nature can co-exist if there’s some thinking behind it and some forethought.”