In the late ‘90s, Dirk Burhans was walking down the snack food aisle of a Kroger supermarket in southeastern Ohio when he came across an abundance of potato chip products that he had either forgotten about or never recognized. He asked himself, “What is the deal with these regional potato chips in Ohio?”
Less than a decade later, Burhans wrote Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, a 155-page book about the origination of the crispy, salted snacks, and how they have become a part of American culture.
Recently, Burhans spoke with Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s managing editor, Marina Mayer, about consumer trends, the snack food industry and the future. Here’s what he had to say.
SF&WB: What led you to write this book? What research and processes took place?
Dirk Burhans: In the late ‘90s, I was a desktop publisher and was publishing a newsletter out of my basement about fast-food restaurants, burger chains and vintage restaurant shops. And at that time, I was making frequent visits to southeastern Ohio. My father was getting older, and I was checking up on him more and more frequently. And one day I was walking up the snack food aisle in a Kroger supermarket in southeastern Ohio, and I noticed all these small chip companies that I had either forgotten about or that I had never tried before. And these are companies like Conn’s [Potato Chips in Zanesville, Ohio] and Mike-sell’s [in Dayton, Ohio] and Mr. Bee of Parkersburg, W.Va., and there were five or six of these companies in the supermarket. And I got to thinking about back here in Missouri, you know, I’ve only seen two companies, well three -- Lay’s chips [part of Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay], Backer’s chips [in Fulton, Mo.] and Guy’s Potato Chips [located in Kansas City, Mo.]. And I started wondering, what is the deal with these regional potato chips in Ohio? So I bought packages of all these chips.
I started writing about these chips, and I had this Chip of the Month column in my newsletter and I would compare the saltiness and greasiness and the taste and the texture, and I’d write a little bit about the company history. And that was a lot of fun.
So I decided to take it to the next step and pitched a newspaper story to my local paper. I talked to William Backer here in Missouri, who was the chairman of Backer’s potato chips, which was the only family run company left in Missouri at that time. And Mr. Backer was a second-generation member of his family to be in the potato chip business. He sat down with me for a couple of hours one afternoon and told me all about potato chips. He told me about all of these regional companies that used to exist.
At some point, I said to him, “Mr. Backer, you know I think it’s really interesting, all these regional companies and all these interesting packaging designs and all these tastes and different textures and oils, and I would kind of like to write a book on it.”
And Mr. Backer said to me, not his exact words, but essentially he said, “son, you don’t know what you’re getting into here if you want to write a book about it. This is not just a book about cute mom-and-pop potato chip companies. It’s about corporate warfare. It’s about blood on the retail snack aisles. It’s about the Department of Justice and investigation of the snack food industry.”
And he proceeded to tell me about the Great Potato Chip Wars.
I kind of had a vague idea about some of this going on -- that there was some acrimony and conflict in the potato chip world. And when I would make phone calls to some of these potato chip companies, they were kind of hesitant to say too much. I kind of had an idea about some of the competition, but I didn’t realize the extent of it or how much corporate intrigue and controversy there was. It was quite a bit of work, quite a bit of interviews. I interviewed almost 90 people.
The part that I liked the most about writing this book was interviewing the old-timers in the industry, mostly men and some women, who’ve spent their whole lives in the industry. And I was happy and proud to be able to tell their stories. And it’s a very interesting world. Many of these sources are no longer alive.
I think people in the snack food industry are really going to like the book. They’re going to read about a lot of familiar faces, people and companies they know, events that they remember happening.
Editor’s Note: To read a full version of our interview with Dirk Burhans, check out our March issue.