Manufacturing isn’t just about mechanical products. Food processing is big business, especially in our agriculture-rich region, where thousands of employees make it possible to get food from the farm to your table.
Great enterprises often are born from simple places. Jeff Bezos had a garage. Henry Ford had a shed. Ethel and Eugene Fisher had a basement and a stove. In 1932, at the heart of the Great Depression, the Rockford couple began producing potato chips to earn extra cash.
The Fishers’ simple idea is today a Rockford staple, a homegrown food manufacturer recognized around our region for its crunchy potato chips and that age-old logo of a dancing potato. In 81 years, the Mrs. Fisher’s potato chip recipe has stayed the same – potatoes, shortening, salt – but the business, and the food industry at large, have changed dramatically.
Fully one-fifth of our local workforce is employed in manufacturing, much of it in food processing. Nationally, more than 1.4 million people, from bakers and butchers to cooks, millers and machine operators, process the farmer’s crop into foods we love.
In Illinois alone, nearly 76,600 people help to manufacture food, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Packaged foods are big business, amounting to nearly $39.3 billion worth of food shipments in 2010, according to the Midwest Food Processors Association.
In northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, brand names such as Mondelēz, Frito-Lay, Dean Foods, Hormel and General Mills dominate the scene. By comparison, Mrs. Fisher’s is a small family business. While co-owners Mark and Roma Hailman maintain just 10,000 square-feet of factory space, at 1231 Fulton Ave. in Rockford, their business is a familiar and significant contributor to local manufacturing.
“One thing I love is the tremendous compliments we get from customers daily,” says Mark. “They express how these are the best chips in the world, how happy our chips make them and how we’ve been part of their lives for so long now. They’re so happy we’re still in business, still located here.”
Making a Chip
The process for creating potato chips is amazingly simple: peel a potato, slice it, cook it, salt it, cure it and pack it. In a system that would make Rube Goldberg smile, the process begins when potatoes are unloaded from the truck, using an old conveyor belt system for potatoes.
“We can unload the 50,000 pounds of potatoes in just a little over an hour, maybe an hour and a half,” says Mark. “Back in the day, they came in 100-pound bags. We hear stories, that one day Pete [former co-owner Pete DiVenti] was here by himself and a truck came in, so he unloaded all 40,000 pounds by himself. Can you imagine?”
Today, the process is far more automated. When potatoes are needed, about 1,200 pounds are forklifted in a plastic crate, up to a giant hopper, where they’re dropped into a wash. From there, a machine peels the potatoes using centrifugal force.
“The potatoes drop in, they spin, and there’s a rough plate in there that takes the skin off them,” says Mark. “The potatoes come up here, then they go up a bucket elevator into the slicer.”
Once sliced, the chips travel through a vat of hot oil and are cooked for about 20 minutes. They’re lightly salted, then conveyed to a hopper where they’ll cure for about a day, until they’re packed up.
“What we find is it’s not good to cook them and put them right into the bag,” says Mark. “They need to dry out for a day.”
Around the factory, chips are located everywhere.
Some are packed and boxed, waiting to be shipped. When the time is right, three local delivery drivers and four distributors will take them throughout northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and suburban Chicago, to supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers.
Near the packaging machine, several large tubs are filled with chips, waiting to supply one-, two- and four-pound buckets that can be purchased at a retail store located inside the building.
The chip-making process is still relatively the same as Ethel Fisher’s original operation, save for the massive equipment at the heart of the factory. Automated machinery has greatly improved this otherwise manually intensive production.
“They used to do everything by hand, including peeling the potatoes,” says Mark. “Back when they were down by Zion Lutheran Church, on the corner of Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, you could walk down Fifth Avenue, look in the window, and see the women in there peeling potatoes. It was very manually oriented.”
On average, employees in food manufacturing earn about $18.15 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Machine operators and butchers typically earn between $10 and $12 an hour, but machine operators fill the most jobs, about 118,000 nationally. Often, these jobs require some skill in computers and math, but at Mrs. Fisher’s, employees maintain multiple roles.
“It’s mostly on-the-job training, whether it be the cooker or the packagers, or even one of the route drivers,” says Mark. “So, there’s no real specialized skill, just a good work ethic.”
Thanks to automation, the operation is incredibly lean, with just 12 employees, including the Hailmans. Employees include three delivery drivers, two packers, a machine operator, a floor manager, a cooker and a retail store operator.
Small and Local
Mrs. Fisher’s isn’t the only small-time manufacturer producing big things. In fact, nearly 64 percent of Rockford-area manufacturers have fewer than 20 employees, according to a 2007 economic survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Still privately operated, the business has had just five owners since Mrs. Fisher sold it in 1949; all owners were former employees. The longest-running owners, brothers Chuck, Pete and Paul DiVenti, spent 25 years secretly grooming Roma Hailman to take over. In 2007, the brothers sold it to Mark and Roma, and she’s the company’s first female owner since Mrs. Fisher.
“A lot of times, the DiVentis would leave and then I’d be here by myself, running it, closing it, opening it up in the morning – short of signing paychecks, I did everything,” Roma says. “It was a great feeling, because I knew they trusted me enough to do that.”
Mark, on the other hand, was raised in a corporate culture, working in purchasing departments for several local manufacturers. That experience guided Roma and him as they led small improvements, mostly with technology and supplies.
“When we first took over, my thought was that we won’t touch anything for three to five years, because it’s been so successful,” he says. “But we’ve updated our fleet of trucks. We’ve updated the packaging process, to make it more modern, integrated more accurate systems. We’re trying to make it better than it was, yet not change the process that affects the quality of the chip.”
The Hailmans are committed to working with local suppliers. The shortening comes from Stratas Foods, in Decatur, Ill., formerly part of Archer Daniels Midland. Their barbecue chips spice and French onion dip mix are made by Illinois companies. Even the potatoes come from Illinois, when they’re in season.
“Tom Neumiller, down in the Savanna [Ill.] area, supplies us with potatoes from about July through October,” says Mark. “When he runs out in October, we go up to North Dakota, and they have them in storage up there through about April.” Afterward, he buys from Florida, North Carolina and Missouri, until Illinois’ crop is once again ready.
“We’ll actually get comments from customers, ‘Those don’t taste like usual,’” says Mark. “We tell them the only thing that changes is the potato.”
Competition among snack food manufacturers is fierce, but Mrs. Fisher’s has carved out a small, loyal niche. Nationally, about 50 companies account for 90 percent of snack food revenue, according to business research firm Hoover’s. About 30 percent of that revenue is in potato chips alone. The industry’s massive domination means both challenges and opportunities for the small-timers.
Giants such as Frito-Lay often set trends for pricing and packaging, steering customer expectations and smaller competitors. But Mrs. Fisher’s sticks to its longtime standards.
“We still make a one-pound bag, and we have a 24-ounce bag,” says Mark. “There are people who think we should cut those down, like everyone else, but that’s not part of our tradition.”
The Hailmans also hear customer demand for flavored chips, but so far, the company offers just a few of the most popular options, such as classic, ripples and barbecue. Because of competition, the new brown and crispy “dark chip” is available only in the retail store.
“Customers come in and say, ‘You’ve got to get those in the store,’” says Mark. “Our difficulty there is shelf space, and obviously Frito-Lay dominates the shelves, so whatever’s left is for the rest of us. When you’ve got either a two- or four-foot section, it’s hard to put too many different products in there.”
Back in the 1990s, the company experimented with kettle chips cooked in peanut oil, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored chips, but neither took off. Now, the company offers various popcorns and snacks produced by a Wisconsin company, in addition to their classic chips lineup. Roma says she always entertains new product ideas.
“We’re just throwing ideas around,” says Roma. “It’s costly to add a new product, if you’re going to put it into a retail store, because you have to have a bag printed, and you have to create a UPC code.”
In an era when trans fats and snack foods are under fire from healthy-eating advocates, the Hailmans stand by their classic product. On the other hand, they’ve discovered that their chips naturally fall into the gluten-free category.
“I looked into it, and of course potatoes are gluten-free, and I checked with our shortening producer, and they certified there’s no gluten in there, and salt is of course gluten-free, so we added that label on our one-pound bag,” recalls Mark. “Now, some people thought we changed something, and they said, ‘I don’t know if I like the taste of these new gluten-free chips.’ Nothing’s changed, it’s just noticing that more and more people seem to have dietary restrictions.”
Customers seem perfectly happy with the classics, and on any given day, the small retail store is swarming with customers. Many purchase a chip bucket, which they can bring back for a refill. The Hailmans also welcome custom orders, such as the “hot chips,” pulled right off the line, and the unsalted or lightly salted, which are pulled before hitting the salter. For former Rockfordians who live far away, the couple also ships orders around the country.
The Hailmans have noticed a distinct loyalty to their brand, and they’re quick to repay the kindness. “We get to know a lot of people around town, and we get involved with a lot of things,” says Mark. “We try and donate as best we can for our troops, and we’ve hooked up with the Kiwanis for Brat Days – that’s a real big event for us in July. We’re very fortunate because everyone seems to know us.”
Even in the midst of the recession, sales held steady. It’s a comfort food, and everybody has to eat. “We seem to hold our own during those times, because people are pinching pennies,” says Roma. “They’re not going out to dinner. They’re going to their meat market, buying a pound of beef, making burgers on the grill. And they’re buying potato chips to go with the burger.”
Although they’re occasionally approached by corporate groups, the Hailmans say they have no intention of selling out. In their minds, it doesn’t take a multi-conglomerate to create jobs and please customers. They’re satisfied with their customers’ loyalty, and with producing a small-scale, but very familiar product, right in their hometown. That’s just the way Mrs. Fisher began.
“When we took over, we didn’t take over with the mentality that we were going to become millionaires,” says Roma. “That’s not what we want. It’s something that you can be proud of, something that you can walk around with your head held high, that you own a business that people like, that you can come into, and that you make enough money to live comfortably, meet the payroll, pay the bills, and you get a little pocket change – that’s all. You don’t need to be greedy.”