The American snack industry has seen a wide range of dramatic changes over the past century. But one constant is Mikesell’s Snack Food Co., founded in Dayton, OH at the dawn of the 20th century, making it one of the oldest snack producers in the country.

Today, Mikesell’s is still based in Dayton, and it’s still a family-owned business, still serving the snack needs of a growing and devoted consumer base that has expanded across Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois—as well as select markets nationwide and overseas.

As one of the last major family-owned regional salty snack producers, Mikesell’s also brings regional strength to retailers across its distribution network—a fact clearly reinforced during the worst moments of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also continues to make strategic investments to improve and reinforce its competitive advantages.

 

Historical perspectives

Mikesell’s got its start in 1910, when founder Daniel W. Mikesell and his wife Martha established the business to sell dried beef and sausage products in Dayton. But a new phenomenon soon caught their attention: the invention of “Saratoga chips.”

Recipes for thinly sliced, fried potatoes had appeared in French culinary publications as early as 1795, with a recipe by early American culinary writer Mary Randolph penned in 1824 (as noted in the definitive historical tome, “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” edited by Andrew F. Smith). But it was the legend born in Saratoga Springs, NY that propelled the salty snack into the American consciousness.

The legend indicates that George Crum, a chef at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs—in a fit of frustration—thinly shaved potatoes and fried them to a pronounced crispness and accented them with a generous dusting of salt to appease a finicky customer on a fated day in August 1853. The customer was delighted, and the word quickly spread. The ensuing popularity brought Saratoga chips to the American masses in earnest.

So when Daniel and Martha Mikesell had the opportunity to buy some potato chip equipment, they jumped at the opportunity, and Mikesell’s as we know it today was born.

The road to regional salty snack fame wasn’t easy. But early disasters didn’t dissuade Mikesell’s. “The company was destroyed by fire very early on, and then shortly thereafter it was destroyed again by a flood that hit Dayton,” says Luke Mapp, president, Mikesell’s Snack Food Co. “So when I think of Daniel W. Mikesell, I think of perseverance—an entrepreneur who started up a business that was destroyed twice within the first few years of operations. But he persevered.”

In the early days, Daniel W. Mikesell would deliver his Saratoga chips to customers throughout greater Dayton on his bicycle—which he routinely had repaired at a now-famous bicycle shop located at 1127 W. 3rd Street in Dayton, a business owned by the brothers of his friend Katharine Wright.

“He was right down the street from the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop,” says Mapp, “and it was the Wright brothers who repaired his bicycle.”

When they first started, they were just producing out of the kitchen in their home, says Mapp. Then they built new structure to house production next door. They outfitted that space as a small makeshift factory, producing and selling chips around the Dunbar neighborhood of Dayton—an area now known as the Dunbar Historic District.

From such humble beginnings, Mikesell’s would soon soar to great heights.

 

Operational details

Today, Mikesell’s operates state-of-the-art production facilities in Dayton and Indianapolis.

“In 1955, Mikesell’s finally built the facility that we are in today,” says Mapp. “We had some expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, adding on administrative and warehouse space, and adding distribution centers, as well as a new facility in Indianapolis facility. We do all of our potato chips and kettle chips out of the Dayton facility, and we do all of our extruded puffs out of our Indianapolis plant.”

Mapp has a long history at the company. He started in sales in 2002 and rose to his current position as president in 2020. Along the way, he held various positions in sales, marketing, and operations, gaining a comprehensive view of the business.

Recent operational advancements at Mikesell’s include instillation of new packaging equipment and tubular drag conveyor technology for transporting finished product within the production facility.

“We have our kettle at the back of the plant,” says Mapp. But the packaging room is at the front of the plant. That was stretching personnel resources thin. So Mikesell’s installed an enclosed tube system that moves its kettle chips from the back of the plant to the front packaging room. “Now, instead of moving people around, we’re moving the chips up to the packaging room,” he says. “That was a pretty neat investment for us. It has paid dividends as far as looking at efficiencies and utilizing our labor and resources.”

Mikesell’s has also installed a nitrogen flush system, which let them extend the code life on the chips. New slicing technology brought better yield.

Mapp is also looking at potentially investing in additional packaging equipment, including automatic case packing to reduce labor inputs. “We’re putting money back into the facilities to try to become as efficient as we possibly can.”

 

The product lineup

“Our potato chips are still our core mover,” says Mapp. In fall 2020, Mikesell’s launched a new flavor of its regular potato chips, Salt and Lime. Puffed snacks are also a signature product area for the snack producer, most recently releasing Pepperoni Pizza Puffcorn. Both of these new snacks went into distribution in Walmart in February 2021.

Other potato chip offerings from Mikesell’s include:

  • Regular potato chips in Original, Green Onion, Honey Bar-B-Que, Zesty Barbecue, and Reduced Fat

  • Old Fashioned potato chips, billed as “DW’s Original Recipe, Crisp & Hearty,” in Original, Salt and Pepper, and Himalayan Sea Salt and Vinegar

  • Crinkle-cut “Groovy” potato chips in Cheddar and Sour Cream, Good’n Hot, Smoked Bacon, Spicy Dill Pickle, and Reduced Fat

In addition to the new Pepperoni Pizza Puffcorn, Mikesells offers:

  • Puffcorn Delites in Original, Salted Caramel, Movie Theater Butter, and Cheddar Cheese

  • Cheddar Cheese Curls

  • Pork rinds in Original, Barbecue, and Red Hot

  • Pretzels Rods, Sticks, and Mini Twists

When it comes to its private label business, Mikesell’s offers some of its core flavors to retailers for their own brands, as well as customized solutions.

 

Distribution matters

While Mikesells’ got its start on two wheels, eventually, Ford Model “T” panel delivery trucks replaced Daniel W. Mikesell’s trusty bicycle. Those trucks likely comprised the first commercial delivery fleet in Dayton. Today, Mikesell’s maintains strong regional distribution across Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois.

“We distribute across most of Ohio. We are also in most of Indiana, as well as pretty much the entire state of Kentucky. That’s our core footprint,” says Mapp. “We do some business in central Illinois, and then we do some direct shipping throughout the year to customers like Menards and Walmart, where they will buy a bunch of product from us and spread it throughout their stores. We also do some international business. We have a broker that sells a lot of our products over in Asia.”

Grocery stores represent core product volume for Mikesell’s. “The big three for us are Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer. That’s where the majority of the volume is moving. Club stores like Costco are also important to us. In c-stores, we do a great job with Speedway and some other chains.”

Of course, independents factor into the business model for the family-run company. “I always like to call out Dorothy Lane Market,” says Mapp. “They only have three stores here in Dayton, but they have been great partners for us through the years, and they are so well-known across the U.S.”

Mapp notes that Mikesell’s continues to fine-tune its distribution network, with an emphasis on establishing more company routes. “We are trying to take back control over our distribution model. And sometimes it is a tradeoff. There is an expense to owning the truck, the gas, and the maintenance, as well as the responsibility for the driver and all associated costs. The question is how well you want to be able to service your customers versus how much you want to pay for it. We have to get to the right break-even point.”

In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the U.S., questions about food security prompted a surge in retail sales across the nation, seriously challenging snack production and distribution networks. But Mikesell’s passed through those troubled waters with flying colors.

“When it became apparent to me that they were getting ready to shut down the country, the first thing I did was call my potato broker,” says Mapp. “I said, ‘Whatever you do, do not let me run out of potatoes.’ And then I called my plant manager and had him start producing six days a week, because I just had a feeling that it was going to get crazy, and the national brands really struggled to keep shelves full. At that time, we were able to step up in a big way and fill that void. We actually had Kroger managers coming up to us and thanking us in the stores. They were wiped out, and we had capacity. We had potatoes, we had production, and we serviced the market as best as we could.”

This stellar performance prompted Mapp to reach out to retailers, highlighting some of the distribution differences that arose during the worst of the pandemic crisis. “I sent a letter out to all the big grocery store CEOs suggesting that they reconsider their supply chain. Having all of your eggs in one basket is not a good thing. I think customers like Kroger really took notice of what we were able to do for them. Then Kroger gave us the Memorial Day ad, and we knocked it out of the park. So then they gave us the Fourth of July ad, and then the Labor Day ad. They have really been working with us. We’re building trust.” Volume has increased significantly, starting with the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to today.

“I think the biggest benefit that we have is that we can be nimble,” says Mapp. “We can react quickly, and we are much closer to our customers. We can be more attentive.”

Mikesell’s is one of the oldest family-run snack producers in America, and that feeling of family extends to every corner of the organization.

“When I was promoted to president at a board meeting,” says Mapp, “I had some of the other department heads presenting to the board. I didn’t realize it, but they had framed a letter that all the employees had signed that said that they were proud that they had put me in charge of the company. It caught me by surprise that the employees would go out of their way to do that for me. That was a proud moment, just knowing that the employees were vouching for me.”

Mapp notes this sense of belonging even extends to third-party partners who work with Mikesell’s. “There is a certain pride, if you will, of folks who want to work with us. They feel like they are a part of something—like they are a part of the family.”

And that family has a clear vision for the future, notes Mapp. “We’re fighting every day to keep this company going for another hundred years.” 

 

AT A GLANCE

Company: Mikesell’s Snack Food Co.

Headquarters: Dayton, OH

Website: https://mikesells.com

Number of employees: 290

Products: Potato chips, puffed & extruded snacks, pretzels

Brand: Mikesell’s