Detroiters love our potato chips. It’s so very Detroit, right up there with coneys and Faygo. It’s almost like you can’t imagine the Motor City without the salty taste of this simple snack food.

But did you know the rise of what we know today as one of the pantheon of Detroit foods is a story in itself?

More than forty local chip companies once fed the never-ending appetite for salty snacks here, including New Era, Everkrisp, Krun-Chee, Mello Crisp, Wolverine and Vita-Boy.

Only Better Made remains.

Today we’re honored, with the permission of local author Karen Dybis, to share with you a free sample of this new book coming out tomorrow, August 17. You can pre-order it on Amazon and it is called “Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit’s best chip.”

We hope you enjoy!

PROLOGUE: Oil, Salt and Potatoes

Potato chips – those salty, crisp, golden, delicate morsels that are the definition of American ingenuity – are a deceptively simple snack food.

The average potato-chip bag lists three ingredients: Oil, salt and potatoes. That humble tuber mixed with a handful of spice and fried at the right temperature becomes something akin to magic. They not only fill people’s bellies but they also put a smile on their collective faces.

For Detroit and for many cities like it, potato chips provided that and so much more: jobs, brand-name recognition and a taste that came to define home. With just three ingredients, home- or garage-based enterprises sprung up across Detroit in the 1920s. These early chippers created a cottage industry in a bustling metropolis with a reputation for automobiles and hungry entrepreneurs.

[pull_quote_center]For Detroit and for many cities like it, potato chips provided that and so much more: jobs, brand-name recognition and a taste that came to define home.[/pull_quote_center]

For a lucky couple dozen companies, the humble goal of earning a little pocket money expanded in the 1930s to the point where they could open retail establishments. Typically, the front was a store with shelves stocked with potato chips. The back housed a kitchen where the owner’s friends, neighbors and, in many cases, Detroit’s increasing immigrant population worked with speed and dexterity to fill bags with chips, stapling them shut to keep them fresh.

By the 1940s, small batches cooked in kettles gave way to large industrial fryers. Paper or wax bags were replaced with foil-lined versions that were machine sealed. The days of carrying bags of potatoes in from the truck waned as conveyor belts replaced young muscle. Women of all ages – whether young graduates or single mothers or widows – worked the line in every capacity. Men took care of the fryers and drove truck, delivering the finished product to the grocers, druggists and convenience stores popping up across the city.

A few companies transformed again into factories whose busy production areas defined the “Nifty Fifties,” giving livelihoods to those men and women who needed jobs after World War II. A handful of businesses exploded into massive conglomerates by the Swinging Sixties, establishing brands whose manufacturing might and deep distribution channels allowed them to gain dominance over the region’s snack-food industry.

As the decades passed, many beloved household names would go from family businesses to corporate ownership. By the 1980s, the race toward automation, mergers and competition for shelf space would drive most Detroit chippers out of existence. Their only legacy would be rusted tins inside the family attic or Grandma’s garage. Others would be remembered for their faded advertisements painted on silos along Michigan’s blue highways.

[pull_quote_center]Two cousins – Pete Cipriano and Cross Moceri – started Better Made with a single truck and a few hundred dollars in cash.[/pull_quote_center]

The last remaining chipper that survived those ups, downs and everything in between is Better Made Snack Foods. Its plant on Detroit’s Gratiot Avenue is a landmark within this hard-luck city. People of all ages recognize its logo, which features a friendly young maid whose product is “Guest Quality” – that is, fine enough to serve anyone who might grace your doorstep.

Two cousins – Pete Cipriano and Cross Moceri – started Better Made with a single truck and a few hundred dollars in cash. They had a mutual devotion to excellence, personally supervising production to ensure not a single browned chip made it into their bags. Better Made, with its perfectly fried chips, set the standard among other companies who judged their product by its color, its crispness, and, most importantly, its taste.

The fact that Better Made survived from its founding in the 1920s to today is a bit of a miracle in and of itself. Its owners clashed on many aspects of the business, creating such heated debates that Cirpriano would walk out of the room if Moceri came in and vice versa. The constant drumbeat of competition from national potato-chip companies to fickle consumers to Detroit’s population woes would challenge Better Made in a myriad of ways. When the two families finally separated through a buyout in 2003, there was a moment where it looked like the company might have reached its end.

Yet Better Made persevered. Its continued success is a testament to family pride, employee loyalty, community support and thousands of hungry fans who go out of their way to pass by rack after rack of other brands to grab that iconic yellow-and-red bag.

Three ingredients. Salt from a St. Clair mine. Cottonseed oil from American manufacturers. Michigan-grown potatoes for as long as the ground will produce them. Those three things are found in every Better Made chip.

So simple and yet so complicated. And so, so Detroit.

If you’d like to pre-order a copy for yourself (the book comes out tomorrow, Aug. 17), here’s a handy-dandy link to Amazon

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