Based in Farmington, Illinois, Kitchen Cooked has been making quality snacks since the Great Depression, when founder Flossie Howard made ends meet by making potato chips by hand in small, cast-iron kettles in her basement. The chips’ popularity spread to neighboring communities, and the Howard family ran the business for 35 years. In the late seventies, the company was sold to Richard Blackhurst, a local chip connoisseur fresh from a career start at Rockford-based Blue Star Chips (now Vitner’s). In 1976, the growing company built a second factory in Bushnell, Illinois, and two years later, a new factory was constructed in Farmington. Today, Kitchen Cooked is a permanent fixture in central Illinois. iBi recently caught up with Paul Blackhurst, company vice president, who talks about the challenges of operating a small company in a huge industry… and the secret of the perfect chip.
Let’s start with the history of Kitchen Cooked. Can you tell me more about the company’s start and how you got involved?
It was originally started in the 1930s by the Howard family in Farmington, Illinois. During the Depression, for supplemental income, they made chips in their basement. They actually were called Howard potato chips at that time… My father got involved in 1973, and they were just distributed here in Farmington and Canton. There’s also another family, Corey and Mary Starcevich… They bought in as we started a plant in Bushnell… I was one of the kids that always hung around my dad when he was involved in the business; I went with him all the time (laughing). I guess I just got in and went after it. So it’s [now] Mary and Corey, and my dad and me.
Why the red kettle logo?
The kettle on the bag originated from… when they were produced in an old church here in Farmington. The kettle actually came from how they were produced—in these small kettles—in single, really small batches, by hand. I wish we would’ve kept one of those kettles (laughing), because it’s evolved from that.
Do you still use the same recipe today?
Yes, we’ve maintained it… They’re still cooked in small batches [so] we can overlook each process as they’re being fried. That’s something a little more unique to us: the potatoes are peeled in small batches and cooked in small batches… at possibly 300 pounds an hour. The major national companies… may put a potato in at one end and it goes through different chambers until it’s a chip at the other end. They’re producing probably 10,000 pounds an hour.
How much of your production line is automated, and how much requires a human hand?
We automated more in 2003… because the jobs those employees did were really hot—leaning over, and we actually used to stir by hand. It wasn’t everybody’s favorite job when it was 100 degrees out! So… even though it’s still by hand in batches, we can automate more [with] PLCs [programmable logic controllers] or computers… It actually helped consistency tremendously, and it eliminated somebody from having to deal with the heat and that hard labor of the job.
Tell us about your other products, aside from the potatochips.
Actually, the first of the products we had was cheese popcorn back in the late ‘70s, and that’s been the same—made in small batches. [But] we started our own line with Kettle Kurls and Kettle Pops in our Bushnell facility. We’ve tried to create our own niche… with our chips, the oil we fry in—we don’t just use whatever’s cheap on the market. We fry in a soybean oil so you get the real taste of the potato… With a cheese curl, you could make that item as cheap as you want to, but we use a real cheese and other quality ingredients. We don’t want to be just another run-of-the-mill [producer]. When somebody eats it, we want to be better than a national brand.
Tell us about the company’s pledge to support the local community by buying local ingredients.
We currently work with a lot of local companies. As far as the potatoes, at different times of the year, you have to go to different places, obviously, because of the climate, but from about the end of June all the way through October, we get potatoes from a farmer right here in Illinois. He’s got places in Savanna, Cordova and Bath, just south of Havana. So during that time of year, we might actually get a potato that was dug in the morning… fried that afternoon and on the shelf the next day. It’s about as fresh as you can get.
I imagine that commitment to freshness helps your reputation, which must be important to competing in the industry?
Exactly. When you’re a small company going after all of these big fish, you have to be better than them. Since I was a young kid… I’ve seen so many different chip companies that have gone out of business because they try to be what I call a “me-too” item—just to have something that the major manufacturer has—where we try to produce a unique product, create our own niche and be a better product than the national brand.
Tell us about your distribution.
To the west, we go as far as the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area with routes; to the north, just a little north of Lasalle/Peru, as far as the Dwight area. And if you follow the Mississippi River down on the west side, to Burlington, Fort Madison, Quincy, down to Hannibal, Missouri, and you can kind of follow [Route] 24 down to Mount Sterling, Beardstown down as far as Springfield, and shoot up by Champaign… We currently do the bulk of our business [via] direct-store delivery.
I see you do online sales as well…
It’s actually been tremendous. You see so many people who have moved away from the Peoria/Galesburg area… and it’s nice to get something from home, especially at Christmas and holidays. It’s crazy, but they’re shipping out 70 to 100 cases a day as we get close to Christmas. It started out really small, but in the past year, it’s grown tremendously.
What else has changed in your industry over the last five or 10 years?
We’re a small fish in a big sea. I’m dealing with very few locally-owned family stores anymore—everything is corporate America. And I’m dealing with a lot of people based in areas that have never heard of us… That’s been a big battle. There have been so many buyouts of grocery stores… [but] everything’s still about relationships. You want to build those relationships with the people you do business with, all the way down to our customers who have purchased our product throughout the years. It gets hard as it spreads out so much. You’re also dealing with so many government regulations, as far as the nutritional facts on the bag. Any time the government brings in things like that, you’re dealing with a lot of cost. Coming up with a new item might be small to a big company, but for us, it is just huge.
Do you have any new products? And what are your most popular items?
Currently… we make [potato] chips at both Farmington and Bushnell, but we make chips and our corn items in Bushnell. We’re in the process of expanding our chip production in Farmington, expanding more of our corn items in Bushnell, and taking away the [potato] chips from there to be [made exclusively in Farmington].
Our most popular is our regular Kitchen Cooked potato chips—that’s number one, and our Kettle Kurls has been our number two. But more than expanding into other [product] areas, we’ve been expanding more with… larger warehouses, so we’re not actually delivering that product direct to stores ourselves. For instance, I have a major warehouse I sell to… and they distribute the product as far as Florida. That’s been more of our expansion than expanding our own current market.
Have you had any feedback from new customers out there?
It’s been tremendous. The pictures we’ve gotten on social media from people from Florida finding chips to Tennessee to Kentucky… it’s been huge. And you can use that… to test new products without going in there with your truck.
I imagine social media helps with creating brand loyalty as well.
Yes, it does. That was definitely new to me. My secretaries handle most of that, but it’s amazing who you can connect to with that, and get people who used to live in this area something from home. iBi