Culinary history, often tinged with meaningful sociological context, is the lifeblood of my long career as a food industry journalist. Legendary stories of culinary invention—and the people behind the creations—fuel my creative drive. This culinary lore wields significant power, and companies that factor into these tales in a meaningful way often have origin stories that intertwine with key points in our nation’s history.
It’s a true privilege to tell the stories of snack and bakery company success, meeting with industry leadership and getting to know what makes their companies tick. This month, we take a look at the origins and growth of a true American snack industry legend, Mikesell’s Potato Chip Co., a landmark company from Dayton, OH, with an origin that dates back to the earliest days of the 20th century—an origin that neatly intertwines with the history of potato chips.
Mikesell’s played a significant role in popularizing the No. 1 salty snack in America, the potato chip, which today is an $8 billion category. But back in the early 1900s, the snacks were better known as “Saratoga chips,” named after the town of Saratoga Springs, NY and tied to the stuff of legend.
As the tale is told, on a fated day in 1853, George Crum, the chef at Moon’s Lake House, a popular eatery in a resort town, was frustrated a customer who sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen, impertinently demanding that he fry them crispier. So Crum reputedly sliced the potatoes ridiculously thin and fried them into an alarmingly crispy state. Naturally, the diner was delighted. The word spread, and Saratoga and Crum secured their spot in the history books.
Of course, potato chips existed in numerous forms before that point in time. Crum wasn’t the first to fry up thinly sliced potatoes to a delicious crisp. But the Saratoga story stuck—and it holds power.
Today’s snack and bakery industry is seeing the clear value in storytelling—the context provided for our foods, their backstories, the unique factors that underpin their enterprise. This context brings meaning and relevance to consumers. They internalize that lore, often intertwining their own stories into those beloved brands as they travel through life.
The vision of company founder Daniel W. Mikesell, delivering his freshly fried batches of Saratoga chips on a bicycle routinely repaired at the famous Wright brothers shop, is emblematic for the still family-run Mikesell’s. It tells a tale of perseverance and ingenuity, filled with powerful culinary lore. And it’s as valid today as it was over 100 years ago when the company first got its start.
While not every company can have as rich of a visual metaphor as Mikesell’s to serve as a guiding influence, everyone should have a story to tell, unique elements that, when woven together, tell a tale worth listening to—and hopefully repeated through the years to come.