COLUMBIA — It started as a quest for information to include in a newsletter about vintage burger chains and morphed into an interest that became compelling enough to inspire a book.
Dirk Burhans, of Harrisburg and an MU alum, first came up with the idea to write about potato chips while walking through the snack aisle at a grocery store in Ohio.
“As I went down the aisle, I noticed all these potato chips from small companies that I’d never heard of,” Burhans said. “Each chip was different.”
Intrigued by the number of regional brands in Ohio, Burhans began looking into the brands in central Missouri and found that the only two were Backer’s Potato Chips in Fulton and Guy’s Potato Chips in Kansas City.
The experience progressed from including a chip of the month in each newsletter to pitching an article idea to the Columbia Tribune. For the article, Burhans interviewed William Backer, former chairman of Backer’s Potato Chips.
Burhans said the interview made him realize how interesting the industry was, and the idea for a book was born. “Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip” was published earlier this year and can be purchased at University Bookstore and Barnes & Noble.
“I wanted to tell the story of these small businesses (that) are really very creative,” Burhans said. “You don’t think of business people as being creative, but they really are. The advertising, marketing, angles for promotion were very inventive.”
One question he had for Backer was why there were so few regional brands of chips in the area.
“He told me Missouri used to have tons of local potato chip companies,” Burhans said. “Columbia had its own; Jefferson City had two. When I asked him what had happened to all of these companies, he attributed it partly to the normal consolidation we see in all aspects of American business. He also attributed it to the Great American Potato Chip Wars.
“Essentially, it came down to a battle to become the main chip company, and many little companies couldn’t afford to compete. The slotting fees proved too costly, and companies were being bought up,” Burhans said.
“People kind of chuckle when it’s mentioned in our book promotion that there is a dark side to the potato chip industry, but there really is,” he said.
Backer’s first started selling chips in 1931. The mom-and-pop company offers a German-style chip that, according to owner Vicki McDaniel, isn’t made by anyone else in the country. Their doors stayed open, despite the challenges posed by competition.
“We stayed open mainly because of brand loyalty,” McDaniel said. “We’ve been around for a long time, and the loyalty among local grocers has helped us stay around.”
Burhans was also quite interested in regional customer loyalty.
“Most of us think of a chip as a chip," he said. "Actually, just a plain old potato chip can be very different throughout the country. We have so much cultural homogenization, but when it comes to potato chips, you can find very regional taste preferences. I just think that’s very cool."
While many of these regional brands have been lost since the Great Potato Chip Wars, kettle chips have burst on the scene within the last five to 10 years.
Spudmaster ColossalChips is the most recent brand of potato chips to be created in mid-Missouri, located in Bellflower in Montgomery County. The product is sold in a box. The potatoes are cut length-wise, creating a chip so large that box packaging prevents breakage the best.
“They are considered high-end, as far as potato chips go. It costs almost $5 for a box,” Burhans said.
According to Ed Pilla, owner of Spudmaster ColossalChips, the product is considered high-end because of the types of potatoes and oil used in making the chips.
“Most chip manufacturers use chipping potatoes because of their cooking characteristics. We use fresh potatoes because of their flavor characteristics. We also use 100 percent pure peanut oil, which is the most expensive and best oil out there. We offer a true, hand-made chip,” Pilla said.
Spudmaster chips can be found in Columbia at Hy-Vee and Schnucks grocery stores, as well as in the St. Louis region. The company is just starting to obtain accounts in other parts of the country.
To adapt to the times, many businesses have taken their products online.
“People have moved away from where they grew up and want the potato chips they loved as a kid,” Burhans said.
The online presence of potato chip companies can be attributed to online orders, according to Burhans.
“Some companies will say that this is the only reason they have an online aspect,” he said.
People end up paying a hefty price for something as simple as potato chips. The shipping charges associated with an online order can cost as much, if not more, than the actual chips themselves.
Backer’s doesn’t offer much of an online presence.
“We had a site for a while, but it was nothing elaborate. It’s currently being worked on a bit,” McDaniel said.
Spudmaster does have a Web site that customers can place orders from, but it isn’t very prominent in aiding their sales.
“I’d say under 5 percent of our business comes from online purchases," Pilla said. "It is, however, a great informational tool."
Burhans is currently touring Missouri and Ohio, promoting his book by holding book signings and readings. Some dates even offer a potato chip tasting.