Detroit, Chip City

By Deborah Cassell

Today, the Motor City might best be known for its own Better Made Snack Foods, which uses locally grown potatoes and trans fat-free cottonseed oil to produce potato chips that have earned a loyal following in Detroit, Michigan and beyond.

Automobiles, Motown, Eminem and the Red Wings aren’t all Detroit is known for. Ask any resident of the area — or the state of Michigan, for that matter — and they’ll tell you that great potato chips and other snacks hail from the former Motor City.
Located on the east side of Detroit, Better Made Snack Foods’ 250,000-sq.-ft. plant has expanded by leaps and bounds in recent years. There, the company produces various flavors of popcorn, which are sold in its Gratiot Avenue outlet store, alongside the tortilla chips, corn chips, corn pops, extruded cheese items, beef jerky, pretzels, pork rinds and party mixes that co-pack manufacturers produce under the Better Made brand.
However, potato chips remain the company’s bread and butter. There are two key ingredients to this signature product: the potatoes and the oil. A tour of the company’s plant reveals how these all-important factors make the difference between ordinary chips and those that are Better Made.
Tater Talk
When it comes to picking potatoes, Better Made remains loyal to its local Michigan farmers, who supply the spuds 10 months out of the year. Semis containing 60,000 lb. of potatoes make deliveries to the Detroit plant four to six times a day.
Talk about a lot of taters.
The potatoes used to arrive in 100-lb. sacks that took six people 11/2 hours to unload, notes Sam Cipriano, president and CEO of the company that his father helped start back in 1930. Then, “farmers got sophisticated,” he says. It now takes one worker just 20 minutes to unload a semi via a lift that loads the potatoes into bins containing 35,000 to 45,000 lb. each, where they are de-stoned and stored until fried.
A conveyor that runs alongside the bins delivers the potatoes to the peeler. “The peeler brushes and the grinders remove the least amount of skin we can,” he explains. The peelings are sold to hog farms so as to prevent waste in the manufacturing process, Cipriano adds. An inspector examines the potatoes as they come out of the peeler. Now naked, they are transported to the slicer, which slices the potatoes to a thickness of .060 of an inch.
Slices of Life
After slicing, the potato pieces are rinsed in cold water that, unlike hot water, retains the flavor and does not change the color, Cipriano says. This process also removes the starch. Next, hot air is blown on the potatoes to remove the moisture. Afterward, the pieces are fried in trans fat-free cottonseed oil for three minutes. Thick paddles in the fryer keep the potato slices moving while the oil is heated in a heat exchanger. Temperatures range from 360° to 325°.
It takes 100 lb. of potatoes to produce 25 lb. of potato chips, Cipriano notes.
The Better Made plant’s four lines have a maximum capacity of 12,000 lb. of finished product per hour, adds Mike Schena, the company’s general manager. New oil arrives twice a week and is continuously added to keep production fresh.
“We always use the right oil, 100% of the time,” Cipriano says.
After being fried and then salted, the chips are hand-inspected for appearance and quality as they move down the line. Certain varieties of chips then are seasoned before proceeding to packaging.
Better Made’s quality control lab also runs samples all day, checking the color, seasoning and salt of the chips.
Packing Up
Automation is essential to Better Made’s packaging area, which consists of 28 weighers and baggers, Schena says. Chips are packaged by form/fill/seal machines and then labeled, coded and boxed before riding a “railroad” conveyor back to the warehouse for storage and delivery.
There are three warehouses — pick, storage and co-pack — each of which measures 60,000 sq. ft. and was added one at a time over the years, as more land became available to the company and the business expanded.
In addition to distributing its chips in stores across Michigan, north/central Ohio, south Chicago and now Canada, Better Made has a factory outlet store at 10148 Gratiot Avenue that was expanded and re-opened in October of last year. There, locals and visitors can purchase their favorite products.
The Internet is another revenue stream for the company, which offers many of its products in a variety of bags, tins, pails, baskets and cases, and includes such snacks as chocolate covered potato chips at
Regardless of where its products are sold, Detroit remains Better Made’s true home. It’s also the heart of a family business that continues to grow, giving new meaning to “chip off the old block.” SF&WB
Once You Pop …
Although it’s best known for its potato chips, Better Made Snack Foods does not stop there. The company started producing popcorn at its Detroit plant back in 1965 and now manufacturers the snack five days a week using a trans fat-free cottonseed oil — the same variety in which it fries its chips — that adds no flavor to the product, says Sam Cipriano, president and CEO. New popping corn arrives at the Better Made plant once every five weeks. Available varieties include Cheddar Cheese, White Cheddar, Hot Cheese, Butter and Carmel.
Better Made Machinery
Better Made Snack Foods’ founders, cousins Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri, started making the company’s signature product back in 1930 in a garage on the east side of Detroit. At the time, the chips were sold to movie theaters. The two men opened a storefront on Gratiot Avenue in 1949 and bought additional, neighboring property as it became available.
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that they purchased the company’s first real machines and introduced its rippled Ridges chip. Back then, the women who worked the single line packed the product faster — 30 bags per minute — than the actual equipment. By the 1960s, larger ovens and a continuous fryer were in use, and flavored chips made their debut. The fire that once fueled the fryer has since been replaced by a heat exchanger so that chips no longer get burned.
In the ‘90s, Better Made also was the “prototype plant” for casepackers in the snack food industry, adds general manager Mike Schena.