Nobody Does it Better
By Deborah Cassell
Detroit’s own Better Made Snack Foods keeps local consumers, visitors and a growing region of fans flush with potato chips, popcorn and all manner of munchies in its efforts to be not the biggest, but the best brand around.
When it comes to potato chips — plus popcorn, pretzels, tortilla chips, puffs, beef jerky and, more recently, snack nuts — nobody does it like Better Made Snack Foods.
“We’re not trying to be the biggest,” says company president and CEO Salvatore “Sam” Cipriano. “We’re trying to be the best.”
Over the years, the Detroit-based company has outlasted 22 local competitors, including Mack’s; Famous Foods, Inc.; Wolverine; Krun-Chee; Paramount; Everkrisp; Mello Krisp; Heinz; Paradise; Twin Pines; Kuehmann’s and Vita Boy. Tins from these now defunct brands and companies are on display in Better Made’s outlet store at 10148 Gratiot Avenue, perhaps as a reminder of its survival.
This year, the manufacturer celebrates its 77th anniversary. No wonder residents of Michigan — and north/central Ohio, as well as Chicago’s South Side — consider the Better Made brand not just better, but the best on the market.
According to Cipriano, “Detroiters eat 7 lb. a year of chips, as opposed to 4 lb. in the rest of the country.”
It’s safe to say that Better Made contributes heavily to that startling statistic by offering a strong selection of snacks for a diverse variety of consumer tastes. With 15 potato chip flavors such as Sweet BBQ and Salt & Vinegar (recently selected by Rachel Ray magazine as the best in the country; see “From Better to Best!” on page 19), four popcorn varieties such as White Cheddar and Red Hot Cheese, and packages ranging in size from 1.75 oz. to 16 oz., the Better Made brand is everywhere in the Great Lake State.
“We cover the entire state of Michigan,” says Cipriano, adding that it also is moving into nearby Canada, for which it is in the process of developing bilingual French/English packaging.
“Spanish [also] is going to be an important factor in the next few years,” adds general manager Mike Schena, who joined the company three years ago.
In addition, Detroit has a large Middle-Eastern population, for which it manufacturers a special curry garlic chip.
Better Made’s other claim to fame: Rainbow Chips, a rare product that only makes cameos a couple times a year, depending on the season and climate. (See “Taste the Rainbow,” page 19, for details.)
Better Made is one of a dying number of snack food companies that remain family-owned and operated, dating back to 1930 when it was founded by cousins Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri, who incorporated the Better Made name four years later.
“It was a true partnership, 50/50,” says Peter’s son, Sam Cipriano, who upholds the family tradition.
At first, the two men sold their potato chips to movie theaters, largely because grocery store chains did not yet exist. They gradually developed delivery routes. Today, the company’s snacks are available in supermarkets and convenience and club stores, as well as through foodservice operators, in vending machines and on the Internet.
“A lot of people who live in Chicago order our chips online,” Cipriano notes.
Better Made also produces “the official chips of the Tigers, Pistons and Lions,” he adds, making reference to Detroit’s own professional baseball, football and basketball teams.
The company furthers its local loyalties by purchasing potatoes and other ingredients from Michigan farmers and suppliers. (See “Detroit, Chip City,” page 22.)
‘Potato Chip People’
The workers at Better Made’s Michigan facility are “potato chip people,” Schena asserts. In fact, many were employed by competing snack food manufacturers in the past and bring “extensive skills” to the Detroit plant. “We want to hear what they have to say,” he adds.
Perhaps this is why there isn’t a lot of turnover at the plant, which hires locals in an effort to contribute to the city’s economy. There currently are about 275 Better Made employees. Many of those workers have had a long tenure.
“It’s nothing for us to have a 30-40-year employee,” Cipriano says.
Case in point: Better Made’s youngest delivery driver has worked there for 24 years.
“Once they get in, they stay,” says Catherine Gusmano, daughter of Peter Cipriano and manager of retail sales and Internet sales.
No doubt, the most prevalent “potato chip person” on staff is the Better Made Girl … or Girls. An assistant sales manager’s twin daughters currently take turns representing the brand at grand openings and sporting events, dressed as the original Better Made Girl, which graces the packages of all the brand’s products.
Flavors of Love
The original Better Made product was a plain potato chip. Later, it introduced a wavy, rippled variety called Ridges. Flavored chips made their debut in the ‘60s. Today, Better Made’s products are the perfect accompaniment to a variety of foods and drinks.
For example, its recently reintroduced Salt & Pepper chips are “perfect with beer,” says Schena, adding that its Deli Dill chips go great with sandwiches. Meanwhile, he calls Better Made’s White Cheddar popcorn “exquisite.”
Flavor preferences on the East Coast vary from the Midwest, Schena notes, and Better Made takes this it account during product development. Spice companies have a lot of input into new flavor profiles, he adds.
All the brand’s chips are fried in trans fat-free cottonseed oil.
“We always use the right oil, 100% of the time,” says Cipriano, adding that its recipe remains the same, 100% of the time, as well.
Better Made also offers baked, low-sodium and unsalted chips. And the brand’s packaging lists allergens and sulfate contents for those with health concerns. Better Made is very involved with the Snack Food Association (SFA), which is concerned with healthy profiles, as well as innovation. In fact, Philip Gusmano, assistant production manager for Better Made, is on the SFA board.
Consumer demand for convenience and single-serve packaging also is of concern to the company, which recently introduced 1-oz. bags of its three most successful 3-oz. products — Salt & Pepper, Creamy BBQ and Salvatore’s Sicilian Style.
What’s In a Name?
“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” Schena says.
No doubt Better Made’s Cipriano and Catherine Gusmano take even more pride in the products that bear their own names. In addition to creating Better Made Sweet BBQ — which contains no “heat” and is popular with female consumers — Cipriano also deserves credit for the Parmesan, garlic and onion flavored Salvatore’s Sicilian Style potato chips, sales of which are “very steady and keep growing,” he says. Meanwhile, Cathy’s Creamy BBQ pays homage to Catherine Gusmano.
As its moniker implies, Better Made’s strategy is to produce top-quality products at fair prices, Cipriano says.
Although it is “No. 2 in potato chips” in Detroit, second only to industry leader Frito-Lay, “we’re No. 1 in the metro area,” Schena notes. The local snack producer also has its eyes set on Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Jay’s brand has long served as the No. 2 player.
But, most importantly, the Better Made name means a lot to residents of the Detroit area, who have made the brand’s chips tops.
In the words of famed singer/songwriter Carly Simon, although others may try, “nobody does it better.”
At a Glance
Company: Better Made Snacks, Inc.
Headquarters: Detroit, Mich.
Plant Size: 250,000 sq. ft.
No. of Lines: 4
No. of Shifts: 2
Number of Employees: 275
Annual Sales Total: $50 million
Products: Potato chips, popcorn, tortilla chips, kettle chips, extruded cheese items, corn chips, potato sticks, beef jerky, pretzels, pork rinds, corn pops, party mix, salsas, dips, fries.
Brands: Better Made, Made Rite, New Era
Distribution: Regional in stores; national on Internet
Web site: www.bmgf.com
President & CEO: Salvatore (Sam) Cipriano
COO: Mike Schena
CFO: Mark Winkelman
Human Resources: Ann Gallus
Director of Sales and Marketing: Mark Costello
General Manager, Bay City: Mike Esseltine
Manager of Retail Sales & Internet Sales: Catherine Gusmano
Production Manager: Alan Lee
Plant Engineer: Larry Wanglen
Taste the Rainbow
They might not come in all the colors of the rainbow, but Better Made Snack Foods’ famed Rainbow Chips are as rare as a pot of gold. In fact, the select, so-called “brown” or “burnt” snacks actually better resemble gold coins than they do spectrums of light. And in Detroit, they’re a limited-time-only treat, hence their popularity.
“The demand for them is overwhelming,” says Mike Schena, general manager of Better Made, adding that consumers ask for the chips by name.
Here’s how it happens: During the fall harvest and storage season, some of the potatoes exhibit excessive sugars. When fried, the chips change color as the sugar content caramelizes. Employees then hand-pick the “burnt” Rainbow Chips, which are packaged and sold separately.
The resulting product is “crisp and sweet,” Schena says.
From Better to Best!
Rachel Ray magazine recently recognized Better Made Snack Foods’ Salt & Vinegar chips as the best in that flavor category. According to this month’s issue of the publication, “tasters were drawn to these intensely flavored chips,” saying they “pack some serious pucker power.” Tasters also praised the Detroit manufacturer for slicing the chips just right, calling them “not too thick or too thin.”