Monday, 7 November 2016

With boost from Oprah Winfrey, Detroit Friends Potato Chips hit it big

A Detroit company that was founded to revitalize an east side community gets Oprah's blessing in her popular "favorite things" list for the holidays.


Detroit Friends Potato Chips
is the kind of local product that most people have never tasted or even spotted around town. But the chips — miraculously the founder says — now find themselves on the Oprah's Favorite Things list for the holidays.

"We're not in any big stores or anything — which makes it even more miraculous," said Mike Wimberley, who founded the company in 2014 on Detroit's east side near Van Dyke and Forest.

But thanks to Oprah's blessing in O, the Oprah Magazine last week, the thick-cut chips are flying off the shelves via Amazon.com at $35 for eight bags and a wooden gift crate. Plus $10 shipping.

To say the chips have humble beginnings would be an understatement.

Wimberley, executive director for the Friends of Detroit & Tri-County community center, said the potato chip story began about seven years ago when he wanted to make a difference in Detroit's struggling Hope District community by using vacant lots for an urban farm to grow potatoes.

The community's challenges include every human struggle — unemployment, substance abuse, single-parent families, cancer, mental illness, financial distress after subprime predatory lending.

"This is ground zero for dysfunction in Detroit," Wimberley said.

But growing potatoes in an urban setting was not a sustainable business model, he said, especially since they had a hard time selling the potatoes.

Then someone got the idea to turn the potatoes into chips.

The chips premiered at the community center's soup kitchen where people who were hungry and desperately wanted something to eat promptly threw the potato chips away.

"They were absolutely terrible," said Wimberley, 53.

But Wimberley — who has structured the chip operation to be half nonprofit and half for-profit — said he was inspired to keep going by a story he heard from a friend from Detroit-based Avalon International Breads.

With boost from Oprah Winfrey, Detroit Friends Potato Chips hit it big
As the story goes, a New York baker made wonderful bread. He was asked if he studied in Paris or somewhere else in Europe. Not at all, the baker said, according to the story.

The baker simply stated: "We just made a lot of bad bread until we figured it out."

"We're still working to make the perfect chip. It's an evolutionary process," Wimberley said. "We got into making potato chips because we wanted to make a difference in our community."

He's had little luck so far convincing major retailers — or even some regional grocers — to stock the chips, which do have a higher price tag. The 1.7-ounce bag sells for $2.50; the 3-ounce bag sells for $3.50 and a 7-ounce bag sells for $6.

"We're not in big stores for lack of effort. We just got blown off," Wimberley said.

The potato chip aisle appears to be a race to the bottom in terms of pricing, as one discount beats another.

"We knew going in we couldn't compete for price," Wimberley said.

So they tried to compete in the gourmet chip category. The chips are sold at local outlets such as Mudgie's Deli & Wine Shop in Detroit, 8 Plato on Cass Avenue in Detroit, Avalon International Breads and Rasta Hakeem African Imports in Highland Park. See www.detroitchips.com.

Detroit Friends Potato Chips, which has about 10 employees and figures it will need to hire more, also makes chips for a private label based in Queens, N.Y. Some chips are grown in the area; others are bought at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Wimberley said his initial contact with Oprah's people was back in 2015 after the chips appeared in a specialty foods magazine. After a request, some chips were sent to Oprah's offices.

"And they loved the chips, and that started an 18-month process."

At one point, there was a chance that the chips would make the "favorite things" list in 2015 but it didn't happen. There was another chance they'd make a foods list for the Fourth of July issue for "O, the Oprah Magazine" this year. But that didn't happen.

"Each time they contacted us, it fortified us," Wimberley said.

At some point, something had to work out. This summer, they began preparing for bigger sales on that hope.

"Miracles do indeed happen," he said.
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