At Ballreich’s, Smallness Is a Strength

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Flexibility and innovation drive the success of this small, award-winning Ohio chip manufacturer.

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February 7, 2018
Lisa Lupo
A key quality control at Ballreich’s potato chip plant in Tiffin, Ohio, is visual inspection of the finished chips, just before they are bagged, to remove any with imperfections.
Vicki Jeromos-Blayney

Ballreich’s Bros. is a small manufacturer in the small city of Tiffin, Ohio, with a small ingredient list for its hallmark Marcelled Potato Chips. For this nearly 100-year-old family-owned company, small is a strength. It is who they are, what they excel at, and why they have been able to beat out the big guys in national potato chip contests.

Founded in 1920, Ballreich’s has built its success on knowing who it is and focusing on that. “We come up with a lot of things because we aren’t big,” said President and CEO Brian Reis. In fact, he said, “We come up with a lot that companies much larger than us should come up with.

“We understand our size, but that doesn’t stop us from doing our best,” added Reis, who is a third-generation Ballreich on his mother’s side. “We know we have to work hard on being the very best little guy.” That hard work won the company gold medals in 2016 at the nation’s first Chip Festival in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., (the birthplace of potato chips) for its Regular Marcelled Potato Chip and its Smokey Sweet Mesquite Potato Sticks, as well as the designation of Champion Best Potato Stick.

W

hile this is an honor in and of itself, it becomes even more impressive when it is learned that the company beat out the “big guys” including such brands as Lay’s, Utz, Wise, and Herr’s — and it was again honored at the 2017 festival as the Champion Best Spice and/or Salt Flavored Chip for its Salt and Vinegar chip.

All this while continuing to do business on the same land on which the company began. It started on a dirt floor garage, in a copper kettle heated with wood scraps, in Carl and Emma (“Granny B”) Ballreich’s home in the middle of Tiffin.

Ballreich’s management team (from left) includes Quality Manager Nicole Gottfried, President and CEO Brian Reis, Director of Sales and Marketing Haley Thomas, Plant Manager Robert Reis, and Vice President Linda Reis.
Vicki Jeromos-Blayney

After World War II, more family members joined the business, and it was expanded to a larger building in the same location. Then, Reis said, “In the 1960s, they built the factory as it sits now — in the backyard because that’s where they had land.”

INNOVATION. Reis credits a great deal of the company’s success to its ability to be flexible and innovative. “We thrive on innovation and learning things we don’t know — and being just dumb enough to not know we shouldn’t do it,” he said.

For example, about two years ago, the company decided to develop a sweet potato chip. As any of the big guys would tell you, the way to do this is to batch fry the sweet potatoes — rather than process them through a continuous frying operation — as is done for kettle chips to make them harder and crunchier.

Granted, it took the company nearly three years to refine its process and ensure consistency, which included the assistance of an outside food scientist and a year’s worth of tasting chips from every layer of packaged chips on every pallet. The development process was so intense that “the word ‘sweet potato’ was a curse word for a while!” said Haley Thomas, Ballreich’s director of sales and marketing and a member of the family’s fourth generation.

“We’re just young enough in the industry that we do things we’re not supposed to do,” Brian Reis said, but with its determination, flexibility, and innovation, Ballreich’s seems to always make it work.

The company also has a patent and several patents pending on a wavy potato stick. Most potato sticks — including the company’s current award-winning stick — are four sided. The benefits of its new sticks are that they will be stronger, to enable dipping, and hold more flavor.

While a small company has the advantage of flexibility, there are innovation downsides, such as not having the funds for extensive marketing, which Reis sees as having been the downfall of its “Flavor Your Own” chip. The company had developed a boxed system that included the chips, seasoning packets, and microwave instructions for creating a custom-seasoned chip with as much or as little as desired of the chili, cheese, and bacon seasonings provided. “We launched it nationally with Kroger, but we didn’t have the advertising money to make it go,” Reis said.

Currently the company produces only potato products, but it is looking at getting into the tortilla market, which Reis said is underserved in its market.

The company’s willingness to take on new things and innovate also has led to a still-secret “industry changer” it has patented and plans to launch in 2018. (Keep an eye on QA next year; they’ve promised we’ll be one of the first to know!)

AN ART AND A SCIENCE. Whatever it is, something is working, as the ability for this “little guy” to beat out the big guys in the 2016 and 2017 Chip Festivals attests. Why did their chips win? According to Vice President Linda Reis, it’s simple: “They taste better,” she said.

“It’s the same thing that’s kept us around for 100 years,” Thomas added. “They just taste good.”

Vicki Jeromos-Blayney
Rejected potatoes, chips, and water all go into animal feed.
Golf balls are mounted at the end of the incoming potato line, reminding employees that “if it’s smaller than a golf ball, throw it out.”
Vicki Jeromos-Blayney

Marcelled chips were the first type the company made — and being the only chip it made and having only three ingredients (potatoes, oil, and salt), Ballreich’s chip production was more of an art than a science 30 years ago. Many of the line workers had been (and still are) there for years and just knew what to do through experience. It was all sensory, Thomas said.

But today the company focuses on the science of production, with specific written recipes and standards for each product and process. “There’s a lot of merit in that. You have to have your processes, SOPs, and documentation,” said Robert Reis, plant manager and fourth-generation Ballreich. Although the company is continuing to add new employees, it’s retaining its veterans and their knowledge. “When we added the science, we didn’t replace the art,” he said.

“We’re like the craft-beer model,” Robert Reis said. “Being the ‘me too’ will never keep us open or let us grow. But in this era of microbrews, the smallest wrinkle can sell.”

Despite the company’s focus on small, Brian Reis said he has the ultimate respect for large companies, such as Frito-Lay, for which he worked in the past. And it is likely for that reason that he has such a realistic view of Ballreich’s. “We can’t compete with Frito-Lay, but we can take business from them that they ignore,” he said.

A BIG FOOTPRINT. But being small doesn’t mean that growth is a banned word at the plant. In fact, the company’s footprint has reached as far as China … but not under its own name. Rather than trying to compete with the big guys, this regional snack maker focuses on niche products and small runs.

“We’re extremely flexible — we can run as small as 10,000 units per SKU a year,” Brian Reis said. It is just such niche markets where he sees the most potential for growth. “We say we’re the youngest old company in the U.S.,” he said. “There is so much growth opportunity, it’s daunting” — to which Thomas promptly added as though finishing his sentence, “but exciting!”

The company sees its primary growth opportunity as lying in co-packing, private label, and control label, at least in part because, he explained, direct store delivery is heavily controlled by the major players.So it’s much easier to be a national player through private label.

Additionally, because Ballreich’s can produce non-GMO, kosher, and Halal products, it can provide custom and small-run manufacturing in these segments. As a result, Thomas said, the company’s private label business has grown 100% year to year. “The more things that we can check off that others can’t, helps to keep us in the game.”

The company’s continuing growth in these areas is particularly impressive given that it had produced only marcelled chips until 2007 — the year after Brian and Linda Reis bought out 16 family members to become sole owners.

“It truly is a family business,” Brian Reis said. “As we grow, we want to keep it a family business.” That said, in this business, “family” extends beyond blood lines, with Quality Manager Nicole Gottfried as a prime example. Although not a blood relative, Gottfried is considered family all the same. “She’s the boss. We have her back any time she needs it,” said Brian Reis.

QUALITY CONTROL. Gottfried’s arrival three and a half years ago has helped to build the culture of quality and food safety in the facility. “It’s really about empowering quality from the top down,” Gottfried said.

Employee investment in its quality applications is evident, as illustrated by the example of the employee who noticed Brian Reis’ wedding ring and did not hesitate to tell the company CEO that he shouldn’t be in the processing area with it on. Gottfried appreciates that workers are willing to step up in that way, she said. “Quality is the teamwork of everyone here. I need them to see the things I can’t see.”

Quality control is extremely critical when the product has only three ingredients. If one is out of spec, 30% of the product is out of spec. And, said Robert Reis, “With only three ingredients, any minor change can make a big difference and make it taste like a competitor’s.”

The aim to continually increase quality and food safety also has led to investment in its processes, equipment, and people. In recent years, Ballreich’s has:

  • Invested in SQF Level 2 certification, attaining an Excellent rating in 2016 and 2017. “A lot of people don’t understand the cost to learn to become SQF2,” Brian Reis said. But the investment has more than paid off, not only in the increased quality but in the facility’s preparedness for meeting FSMA requirements.
  • Replaced its sacking equipment to increase output, reduce sealing issues, enable modified atmosphere packaging with nitrogen, and prevent high-altitude swelling or popping. To determine the best option, the company conducted tests in a vacuum chamber, Gottfried said. “We tried true vacuum, but we, literally, could not pull the bag open, so we went down a notch.”
  • Survived two fires in 2015 and became better because of them. The company’s heat exchanger broke causing a minor fire which was quickly put out. But in bringing the equipment back up, a major fire broke out. Although it took down the facility for three months, the company had a business continuity plan for a competitor to make its products with Ballreich’s employees working weekends at that facility to get product out. “We didn’t lose a single employee,” Robert Reis said. And, while there was a learning curve to working with the new equipment, it increased quality as the new heat exchanger can hold temperature to within a degree of that which is specified.
  • Invested in a second oil tank to use for private label manufacturing.
  • Resurfaced the food-processing area with a “blue floor” — a food-grade urethane sealant. Epoxy can’t be used because the oil would eat it away, Gottfried explained.
  • Increased efficiencies by redesigning the lines so that, Robert Reis said, “Nothing anyone has to do requires a step; everything is within reach.” This enables the plant to continue to produce the same amount of product, while creating efficiencies so workers have time to do the quality paperwork required by SQF and FSMA.
  • Increased employee investment and satisfaction through reward programs. For example, if any employee discovers a foreign object, he or she receives a reward, such as a gift card. The company also holds regular holiday celebrations and makes shirts for the entire organization for significant events, such as the sweet potato chip launch ... and QA’s visit.

Whether discussing innovation, quality, safety, or growth, the family’s overarching principle is to do what the Ballreich’s have always done: “Do it right the first time,” Brian Reis said. That is why, even with all its employee involvement and quality controls, “adopted” family-member Gottfried maintains constant quality and safety checks. “If I notice anything wrong, I’m not going to let it go out the door,” she said. “To me, that doesn’t say Ballreich’s.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.