From potato to potato chip, Bill Backer knows how the process works. Owner of Backer’s Potato Chip Co., he has been around potato chips for most of his life. One might think Backer would become tired of America’s favorite snack, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
“I brought four or five bags home Saturday,” Backer said. “I’m a connoisseur.”
Becoming a connoisseur is a result of the many years Backer has worked in his family’s company.
Backer’s father, William “Fritz” Backer, started Backer’s Potato Chip Co. in 1931 out of his home just outside Fulton after a fire destroyed his restaurant in 1929. Having made chips in the restaurant and salvaging some equipment to slice and fry potatoes, his dad knew he had to make some kind of living, Backer said.
“He needed to be a productive person again,” Backer said. “And it worked.”
The life of a potato chip connoisseur
A student at Westminster College, Bill Backer was forced to graduate early in 1943 because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He entered the Navy as a basic seaman and eventually became an instructor in Bremington, Wash., where he helped establish a school to teach soldiers on leave from sunken ships.
In May 1946, Backer was honorably discharged from the Navy and returned with his wife, Marge, to Fulton, where he became involved with the family potato chip business.
Backer worked with his father for five years until he moved to Detroit to work at Ford. Late in 1957, he returned to Fulton and took over the company full time. Backer bought more equipment and moved the building nine miles north into Fulton.
“That’s when the business really took off,” he said.
About 25 years ago, Missouri was home to as many as 15 potato chip plants. Today, Backer’s is the only one remaining.
“There’s been quite a change,” Backer said. “My dad, if he walked into our plant now, he would not believe it.”
It seems that Missouri adults and children are loyal to their local potato chip company. A year and a half ago, a blind test of potato chips was given to Columbia school children. Among the chips sampled were Backer’s and Frito Lay’s. Backer’s came out the favorite.
“We got a kick out of it,” Backer said.
Although Backer’s sells its chips in several Columbia locations, including the Sub Shop and Booche’s, about 80 percent of its business is now private label. Backer said its chips go into warehouses in 10 to 12 states, such as Florida, Kansas and Oklahoma, and are sold under 13 other store brand names, including Wal-Mart.
“But they’re all the same chip, the same quality chip,” Backer said.
Backer's potato chips come of age
Backer’s potato chips have come a long way from the original, flat potato chip introduced in 1931. The chips now come with ridges and flavors, including barbecue, sour cream and onion and the much-talked-about Red Hot flavor.
“And I mean it’s red hot,” Backer said. “Not everybody can eat them. I can’t.”
Although Backer’s has no plans to expand, Backer said the company is ready with a second production line if more Wal-Mart warehouses or other companies want them.
“We’re prepared to do more if the business is there,” he said.
In late 1989, Backer turned over the company’s president position to his daughter, Vicki McDaniel. Backer’s son, Dale Backer, is vice president of sales and Bill Backer is chairman of the board.
McDaniel, who has been around the company since she was 5, said her father lets her, Dale and the team run things and he acts as an adviser.
“They’re doing 99 percent of it now,” Backer said. “I still have a finger in it.”
With the company in good hands, Backer has turned most of his attention to the Fulton community and his alma mater, Westminster College.
“I do a lot of civic stuff,” Backer said.
Backer is credited with many beginnings and additions in Fulton. He and two others started the Fulton Industrial Development Authority, a group that issues individual development bonds to new or existing companies. By buying bonds through the IDA, new businesses, or more often businesses wanting to expand, can get better interest rates. The interest that comes back to the IDA is put into more Fulton economic developments, helping the community grow.
“We were the pioneers of the industrial movement here,” Backer said.
Backer is also the father of the Boy Scouts Popcorn Program, which involves Boy Scouts from 33 counties in Missouri selling popcorn door to door. Backer began the program when one of the area camps was on the verge of being closed because of lack of funds. The program now furnishes about one-third of the area Boy Scouts’ finances.
A Fulton community leader
In 1996, Backer became a Distinguished Eagle Scout, after serving the Boy Scouts of America as an Eagle Scout for over 25 years and having major community service involvement.
“It’s big,” said Dan Diedriech, vice president of institutional advancement at Westminster College. “He is way up in the hierarchy with the Boy Scouts.”
Since 1961, Backer has been a member of the Kiwanis Club, where he has gone through the board and presidency positions, as well as the lieutenant governor position, where he oversaw 10 to 12 other clubs. He has also served on the boards of University of Missouri Children’s Hospital , the Chamber of Commerce , the Callaway Community Hospital and United Way.
One of Backer’s current projects is working on getting a technical school brought to Fulton.
“I’m a strong believer in a person getting an education of some sort,” Backer said. “If you drop out of the eighth grade and quit, you’re in bad shape. If you just drop out of high school, you’re most likely to be limited on your income. If you go on and go through some trade school work and get yourself a craft, you’ve got a leg up. Fulton doesn’t have that.”
Backer said although the state has been willing to help and the plan has had a lot of support, it is not on the top of anyone’s list.
“It hasn’t moved along as it should,” Backer said.
Backer said there are several locations where a technical school could be put in, including extra facilities at the Missouri School for the Deaf.
Backer is not only a strong leader in his community, but at Westminster College as well. Diedriech can’t forget the sight of Backer crawling through the piping and the passageways of the Christopher Wren Church at Westminster College, checking for water leaks, cracks and airflows three years ago.
“For a man to show that kind of initiative and dedication is just inspirational,” Diedriech said.
Because of that initiative and dedication, Backer was given the Distinguished Alumnus Award at Westminster College on April 1. The award was given by the Board of Trustees, a group of Fulton community leaders and members who help raise money for Westminster College and William Woods University. Backer has been a member of the Board since 1985 and is the vice chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee.
“He has just been tireless, working on any number of projects,” Diedriech said.
Showcasing a special collection
Although busy, Backer has not lost his love for cars. In 1996, Backer opened the Auto World Museum, contributing about 100 of his antique, collectible cars.
“I have everything from wagons, buggies, clear on up to modern,” Backer said.
Backer bought his first collectable car, a 1924 Canadian Dodge Touring, while he was living in Detroit. Since then, Backer said he continued to buy cars “one or two at a time, dribbling them along.”
The museum is the largest auto museum in Missouri.
“Every now and then, experts see it, and they say it’s the best variety in the country,” Backer said.
The museum in on Bluff Street in Fulton, but Backer is thinking of moving it to a spot on I-70 where more travelers can see it.
“We’re five miles or so away from the interstate and unfortunately that makes a difference,” Backer said. “People won’t get off the main road.”
Not slowing down yet
It is apparent that Backer has given a lot more than potato chips to the Fulton community and that he remains a strong leader in Fulton and at Westminster.
“He’s just Mr. Fulton as far as most of us are concerned,” Diedriech said. “He’s one of the students’ favorites, no question about it. We’re very proud to have him on our board and as an alumnus.”
Backer, 81, has no plans of retiring and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
“I don’t intend to go to Florida or Jamaica or Belize or whatever,” Backer said. “I still have things I fully intend to accomplish yet. I’m not going to quit unless I have to.”