Ted Robb left the potato chip business but the business never left him.
His O.K. Potato Chip Company is back — with a new name and new partners — after a nearly three-decade chip-making hiatus. In a nondescript brick building near downtown Akron, Robb and his cousins, brothers Paul and Anthony LaGuardia, have resurrected the family chip businesses. They’re finding that salty snacks suit not only them, but a whole region of chip lovers.
Robb and the LaGuardias launched Hartville Potato Chips in March. The simple combination of potatoes, hot oil and salt is finding a welcome Northeast Ohio audience. Turns out that people have an appetite for locally sourced beer, produce, meats and cheese, as well as for potato chips made right here in Northeast Ohio.
The LaGuardia brothers have full-time jobs outside of the chip business — Paul is a project manager, Anthony is in sales. They wanted to try their hand at running a small business and didn’t have to look far. Would Robb lend them his considerable experience in the chip business and help reopen the family chip company?
The decision wasn’t a difficult one for Robb, chips or no chips.
“My favorite part of this is not the business,” Robb says. “It’s reconnecting to family that I haven’t been around for a long time because I’ve been busy working.”
What’s it like to work in a family business with a younger generation of partners?
“I’m very blunt, matter-of-fact and I come across as a little hard, but they tolerate me,” Robb says, clearly tongue-in-cheek.
The LaGuardia brothers don’t just tolerate Robb. They treasure his decades of experience and appreciate his chip chops.
Their business cards describe them as a “Second Generation Chip Maker.” The factory and the red and white chip packages have a retro vibe that’s appealing to their regional audience. Hartville chips are showing up at a handful of locations, including Acme Fresh Market stores, Hartville Kitchen and Marketplace, and Buehler’s Fresh Foods supermarkets. Talks are underway for others.
Pass the Salt
On a recent morning, the factory on Grant Street near downtown Akron was running at full force. Ron Latson manned one end of a rambling conveyor system that started with boxes of potatoes. He put the potatoes into a machine that stripped the peels, dunked them in water, and then cut them into thin slices.
The potatoes were dumped into a bubbling vat of oil and then gently dropped into a square pan, where a worker holding a sanitized leaf rake spread the hot chips into a thin layer.
Paul and Anthony’s mom, Vicki, sprinkled salt with a large shaker while employee and family friend Amy Vajdich plucked over-cooked or not-quite-right chips from the batch. The whole process took only a few minutes from potato to bag. Manager Mike Scott, who was with Robb 30 years ago, is back on board overseeing operations.
While Robb says his cousins have the energy to run the business, the cousins know his experience and long-time connections are building a base for the company’s success.
The potatoes are a good example. Hartville Potato Chips is a small company, and big potato producers don’t sell small batches. Robb remembered that years ago he bought potatoes from the Pochedly farm in Mantua in nearby Portage County. The farm today is run by the Pochedly sons who have planted potatoes that he’s harvesting this fall for the chip company.
Robb got into the chip business by what he acknowledges was a naïve confidence in a crowded market. The Akron native came of age when the area had four or five chip factories and more than 20 that distributed chips in the region.
A skilled tradesman, he worked in California making parts for the original Apollo space program. He then worked for Firestone Defense, Research and Development, manufacturing munitions for the Vietnam War. While sitting at the Akron Yacht Club, he overheard the owners of O.K. Potato Chips talking about retiring.
The Vietnam War was winding down, and with it the munitions-making business. “I figured if I could work on parts that were part of the original Apollo mission in California and make munitions for Vietnam, heck, I could make potato chips,” Robb says.
Borrowing money from the federal government’s Small Business Administration, Robb bought O.K. Potato Chips. The job was harder than it looked. Potato quality varies depending on the time of year and the source. If you don’t have good potatoes, you don’t have good chips.
Freshly dug potatoes — like those from Pochedly’s — cook differently than those pulled from storage. Quality control is both a matter of art and science, a skill that comes from years of watching chips slide through the production line.
In 1990, Robb sold the business to the much-larger Troyer Farms Snack Foods. He figured he was done with the salty snack business.
A Mexican company bought the equipment and asked Robb to help set it up. Soon other fledgling chip companies started calling. He bought and sold chip lines, rebuilt the equipment and traveled around the world for the next few decades setting up potato chip factories.
He was slowing down and getting ready to take a break when his cousin Vicki LaGuardia — Paul and Anthony’s mom — said the boys wanted to get into the chip business.
As for the Harville Potato Chip name, Robb retained it when he sold the O.K. brand. Hartville has a homey, family, high-quality feel to it, an image he wanted to keep for their chip company. He used the name with the current Harville Kitchen owner’s encouragement. It turns out, Robb has a lot of friends an
d supporters who want to see the chip business succeed.
None of Robb’s three grown children — including son Teddy Robb, who has a burgeoning country music career in Nashville — were interested in making potato chips. His wife, Jerri, says helping the cousins restart the company has been a good fit for Robb.
“They have the energy, and I have the knowledge,” Robb says, clearly enthusiastic about his encore career. And, yes, he still loves potato chips and nibbles on them whenever he gets the chance. Seems that a family business is a lot like potato chips — it’s hard to stop at just one.
Marie Elium has never met a salty snack she didn’t like.