Ohio: the Buckeye state, birthplace of aviation, the mother of presidents, and a potato chip hotbed.
Can the region support more chips? Nick Marckwald hopes to find out.
A veteran of the restaurant industry, Marckwald, 34, is the proprietor of Hen of the Woods, a restaurant and market opening in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Over the last few years, Marckwald gained a following as a chef in Cincinnati specializing in pop-up restaurants. He also starting producing potato chips for clients, such as other restaurants. The product’s popularity has led him to try expanding production and see if there’s a larger audience for his chips.
The transition from small-scale chip making to a (potentially) larger operation is something we found fascinating. Potato Chip World recently spoke with Nick to talk about his foray into chipping, learn what it’s like to work with a contract manufacturer, and discuss what brought him to where he is today.
PCW: I have to ask: what are some of your favorite chips?
NM: I like spicy chips and what my kids would call sour chips. Salt and Vinegar. I lean more toward the kettle style. Those are my go to’s.
We have a flavor called buttermilk and chive, which is a play on sour cream and onion, and that’s a huge hit and one that i care for. That’s really where I tend to lean.
PCW: Have you always been in the restaurant business? How did you get started?
NM: I started washing dishes in middle school. In high school, I was a short order cook at a beach club on Long Island, New York. I kind of continued cooking, and grew to really enjoy it. And like a lot of people, I fell into the restaurant industry and never made it out.
PCW: Is that what brought you to Cincinnati?
NM: We moved back for two things. One, was being able to be closer to family. The other was to open Hen of the Woods. That was in late 2006. Originally it was going to be fine dining. We put the project on hold when the economy went down the tubes, and rebooted around 2012 as a hybrid of market and restaurant.
When I moved here I started working at a restaurant called Nicola’s. Funny enough the location for Hen of the Woods is one block west of Nicola’s.
PCW: So chips are one of the offerings. It’s not a common dish to make. How did you start experimenting with chips?
NM: The first part would be a lover of the snack food itself. In previous restaurants I had made a lot of chips and so, it was something i was familiar with.
A couple winters ago I started to do some food consulting work for a wine bar, and they were looking to expand their food program while not having a real kitchen to operate out of. So we were looking for options for them that would be easy for their staff to put together, didn’t require a bunch of dishes, didn’t take a lot of time or preparation. We started to make salt & vinegar potato chips for them, and ranch dip with creme fraiche. That became one of their staple items for quite a while.
From there, other business started to ask us if we’d do chips for them. Some of them wanted to be packaged, others wanted them in bulk, so then we started to package them. And it kind of took off there. Then I went to (a contract potato chip manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio) and did a test batch of chips in their kettle machine.
PCW: Tell me about that. Are you doing the cooking? Does their staff do it?
NM: It’s a combination. And a lot of it is automated. You wash the potatoes, and load them all into a hopper. then you set the way they’ll be cut and dumped into the kettle machine, set the temperature and the time, and they get moved back and forth through the kettle machine with paddles. Then, they’re rushed out on a conveyer belt and the oil starts to go off. Then it makes a turn, then another turn, and then on another conveyor belt. This is where you’re able to sort through them prior to seasoning. Then they go down into this drum and they’re rolled into the flavor, and then put on another belt that go up and over into the weigher, and then into bags.
So, their staff, they run the actual machine. I was there with one of my guys and we were taking care of quality control prior to seasoning. It’s the real deal. Their facility, they said, is 120,000 square feet.
PCW: How does that differ from what you might do at your local restaurant?
NM: We’re frying probably about 10 pounds at a time in a 75-pound fryer right now. And the way we’re doing it, our average drop time is 15 minutes (drop time is how long the food cooks in the oil).
In their kettle machine, which is small batch, we were dropping 187 pounds at a time and they were cooking in about 8 and a half minutes.
PCW: When you’re talking about doing quality control, what are you looking for? As a chef, what are the elements that say this chip is good?
NM: We find that our chips naturally taste like potatoes. And I’m sure there’s a lot of factors. We use potatoes that aren’t traditionally considered chipping potatoes, and I believe the reason for that is that they fry a bit darker than a typical potato chip you’d buy in the store.
I don’t know where or why, but someone decided potato chips were supposed to be blonde. Ours are more of a golden brown, and that’s because the potatoes we use have a little higher sugar content, and as they cook in the batches, those sugars caramelize. That helps to elevate the flavor.
We use very neutral flavored sea salt and we don’t go too crazy with it. So the salt in the amount we’re using really takes the natural sweetness of the potato and elevates it to what you’re tasting, and it’s not some crispy salty wafer.
We’re using Burbank potatoes. Norkotah is another that we experimented with and failed miserably. I think the sugar and water content was way too high. So those chips burned incredibly fast. The sugars start to over caramelize, and you start to get bitter flavors out from that. And with the water volume, your yield is really low. It also spends your oil much faster.
PCW: When you work with (the manufacturer) you bring everything. So do you just show up with a truck of potatoes?
NM: It was a test batch, so we loaded them up in my pickup truck. In the future, if we’re able to get all this accomplished, and we can afford to do this start-up, then we would have to get a trucking company to truck the potatoes up, and truck the finished product back.
We supply our own seasoning and our own potatoes, and they supply the equipment. We supply our own bags as well.
A hurdle in getting into the snack food business is the packaging. The minimums to get started are pretty costly, so that’s the biggest thing that you need to be able to do. Also, finding a manufacturer that does private label and allows you to sort of do things with your own standard is pretty challenging.
PCW: It’s a labor-intensive and material-intensive product to make.
NM: It’s interesting too because the yield on potatoes for chips is so low. If you’re staring at 100 percent, your finished product is less than 30 percent. So you’re losing two thirds of the product you start with. You’re ending up with less than a third.
PCW: You’re in Ohio. It’s a very saturated chip market. In some ways it’s good, but there’s a lot of competition. How are you looking to distribute the chips outside of the market?
NM: Our first thought is to put them in other small stores. Mom and pop stores for lack of a better term – delis, small markets, other restaurants, breweries, other things like that. Our other hope is to get in regionally to stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, more natural foods stores. And then go from there.
We don’t have any desire to get into Walmart or anything like that. I don’t see that being our market. Even in a normal grocer like Kroger, if we were to enter a market like that, we would enter in the natural food aisle, not the snack food aisle.
PCW: So if you had to pick the chip business or the market, what would you choose?
NM: We got into this for the market and restaurant, which we see as the driving force beyond everything else. The potato chip thing is sort of a side project that learned to walk on its own. In the end it’s hard to answer. I wouldn’t want to see it go. You don’t want to have to choose between the two children.
The vision of the market was always to fill our shelves with our own products as much as we can. One thing in our business plan, what we’ve always said is we’re not trying to get into a pricing war on paper goods or ketchup. Our business is to sell things stores like (supermarkets) can’t sell, and the best way to do that is to create them on our own and go from there.