Detroit's Better Made Potato Chips Turns 85

Better Made was one of at least 22 chip-makers that sprang up in Detroit in the late 1920s through the mid-'30s — and the independent, family-owned business is the only one of that era still in business, a rare survivor in an industry dominated by conglomerates.

DETROIT (AP) — It was 1930 and the Great Depression was just settling in when two immigrant cousins from Sicily — Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri — began frying potato chips at home and peddling them around Detroit for a nickel a bag.

Little did the cousins know, but those chips would become the foundation of an iconic hometown company — Better Made Snack Foods, which kicked off its 85th anniversary celebration Saturday.

Better Made was one of at least 22 chip-makers that sprang up in the city in the late 1920s through the mid-'30s — and the independent, family-owned business is the only one of that era still in business, a rare survivor in an industry dominated by conglomerates, according to the Detroit Free Press.

To launch their birthday observance, its owners announced the upcoming publication of a book about the history of the company and the city's once-thriving potato chip industry. Published by the History Press and written by Detroit author Karen Dybis, "Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit's Best Chip" will be released in July.

"Better Made symbolizes some of the grit of Detroit," says Dybis, who began researching the book last September. "They shouldn't be here, for all their ups and downs, but they are. There's this big, giant Frito-Lay," which dominates the snack-food world, "but here's little Better Made, fighting the good fight, always trying, never giving up."

And its fans "are almost unfathomably loyal," she says. "People even get Better Made tattoos."

David Walsh, marketing director of the national Snack Food Association, couldn't say precisely how many independents like Better Made remain. But the numbers keep declining, he says.

"Regional, family-owned businesses ... are becoming fewer because they're merging or being bought," Walsh said. "They used to make up more of the industry; now it's moving toward a smaller number of players but larger companies."

Company officials and Cipriano family members — the Moceris sold their interest in 2003 — attribute the business's survival to a combination of product quality, customer loyalty and perseverance.

No one could have guessed it would come this far if they'd seen its rudimentary beginnings.

"They were hand-cooking chips and putting them in little 5-cent cellophane bags, closing the bags and stapling them shut," says Salvatore Cipriano, 73, Peter Cipriano's son and Better Made's CEO. "They would take them to Belle Isle and places like that and sell them out of the back of the truck," or they'd stand outside theaters and hawk them to people going in to see a movie.

Times were desperately hard — which is why so many people were trying to make and sell chips in the first place — and it was the best the young men could do. "They were trying to get started. They were trying to make a mark for themselves," he says.

Catherine Gusmano, 70, Cipriano's sister and the company's marketing and Internet sales director, heard the stories from their father. "Everything was done by hand," she says. "They peeled by hand, sliced by hand, fried them in a big vat and stirred them with a rake. It was very labor intensive. They had all the relatives working."

Gusmano's theory on the company's long-term survival is simple: "I think they didn't give up," she says. "When the going got rough, they stuck with it."

Today, the company has 250 employees and processes 50 million pounds of potatoes a year in a vast, highly mechanized production and distribution facility on Gratiot in Detroit, says company president Mark Winkelman. At busy times, it will process about 10,000 cases of chips a day.

The process is so efficient, it takes only 7 minutes for a potato to travel "from the bin to the bag," as the company puts it.

Other than a single gloved inspector who plucks out imperfect chips at the end of the production line, the finished product is never touched by human hands.

Gusmano recalls visiting the factory when she was a child. "I remember taking chips right off the line, eating them right there. You can't do that anymore," she says.

"It's mind-numbing to see the changes," some required by new regulations and others adopted voluntarily for efficiency's sake, she adds. "It's on and on. The more we push ahead, the more we think we have to do," she says.

Cipriano, Gusmano, and their brother, Isadore Cipriano, 75, own the company, and five third-generation family members work there. The older generation has no plans to sell the family business — not that they couldn't have done so years ago, or even this very day.

"People want to buy us all the time," says Salvatore Cipriano. "I have probably 75 letters here from people who want to buy our company or half of it or something. It'll disappear if we do that. I want it to stay family-owned. I don't want it to be in the hands of some big conglomerate."

The real key to Better Made's success, he says, is the quality of its chips, made with a recipe unchanged from his father's day. "We always try to buy the best potatoes, the best oil, and try to make it the same."

It's the taste Detroiters grew up on and the one that keeps them coming back for more. Better Made is sold only in Michigan, mostly in the southeastern part, and when people move away, many of them miss the chips' familiar flavor.

Andrew Norton in White Pigeon buys them from the company's internet sales site and includes them in the Detroit-themed gift baskets he ships all over the country through his company, "People call up and say, 'Are there really Better Made chips in there? Make sure there's Better Made.' "

And Dennis Hunt, 72, who grew up East Detroit (now Eastpointe), orders cases of them for himself and to give away to customers at his Marina Mar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "People love them. Even the post lady says 'Wow, where did you get these?' "

Hunt's love affair with the chips began when he was a kid and would take the streetcar or walk the 21/2 miles from his house to the Better Made store. "I used to go there and look in the window. You could stand there and watch the chips come off the line ... and if they saw me, they'd give me a handful," he says. "I think tradition has a lot to do with it, but I just like the taste."

Loyalty like that is part of why Better Made has survived — and why the Ciprianos don't plan to change the things that got them to the company's 85th anniversary.

"We're a Detroit icon now," Salvatore Cipriano says. "As long as people are happy with us, we'll keep doing what we're doing."