Chip Off the Old Block

Four generations of farmers later, two plucky brothers and a cousin jump on the potato chip bandwagon in Hartland, NB. (And, they are not McCains)

The building rose at the side of the highway in Hartland in fall 2007, a gleaming testament to entrepreneurial success in the bosom of New Brunswick’s potato country, where the world’s longest covered bridge links the hamlets of Hartland and Somerville across the upper St. John River. Outward signs of fresh industry were (and still are) rare in this part of the province, and so this imposing structure must have seemed, to those who tilled the earth for their daily bread, convincing evidence of a strange prosperity intruding on their familiar landscape.

What they could not know was that the main man behind the project was taking, arguably, the biggest gamble of his young life.

“Well, to be honest, we didn’t even own the land,” laughs Ryan Albright, the president of Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company. “We were still going back and forth with the highway developers. So, we probably had $500,000 [personally] invested in the building and we were waiting on support from the provincial government.”

In fact, getting even this far had not been easy. Albright had tried to buy a building lot in Hartland, itself, at a more desirable location. “We wanted to be very close to the end of the bridge,” he explains. “We even wanted to develop a boardwalk that would connect our building along the water to the bridge where we could line it with shops for local merchants. A lot of people didn’t like our idea.” The local town council voted against allowing them to build there—they didn’t want a processing plant and its associated truck traffic in the downtown area.

“The price tag was much greater to develop the highway site, but it was our best back-up plan.... I kept thinking I was going to get the financing and everything would fall into place. I just rolled the dice.”

He’s glad he did, for today the little company he runs with the able assistance of his brother, Matt, and cousin Shaun is making believers of many early skeptics. The 31-year-old chief executive sells his special brand of “old fashioned kettle cooked potato chips” to retailers in every Canadian province—including about 900 in Atlantic Canada alone; you can also find them in California, Illinois, New York, and the Southern US.

Since January 2009, volume has doubled every year (he won’t divulge actual sales numbers). Now, he’s close to signing an export deal that could secure new markets in the Caribbean.

“In Atlantic Canada, we sell to supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores,” Ryan says. “But we started with the independent retailer. That’s how we built up the business. We’d go into a store and say, ‘Hey, try this.’

When I started to sell in late 2008, I put six cases of chips in wooden racks, climbed into a Toyota Corolla, and began setting up stores locally… Sometimes I look back and wonder how we ever got it to fly.”

In fact, the genesis was less a product of formal planning than a peculiar combination of circumstance and sheer ambition.

Agriculture is in Ryan’s blood; his family has been farming in the area for four generations. After the youthful scion of this tradition completed high school, he joined the farm full time. “When I was done with high school, I just wanted to do other things with my life, and I thought four years of university would get in the way,” he says.

In 2004, he and his brother and cousin formed Carleton County Spud Distributors Ltd. to help sell their own potatoes and those of other local producers to customers across Canada and the US, a business they continue to operate. Two years later, the trio purchased the family farm from their grandfather Lorne, Ryan’s and Matt’s father, Wayne, and Shaun’s father, Robert.

“At about this time, I was looking for various new opportunities,” Ryan says. “At one time, I was looking at potato vodka. Then I had an idea about potato chips. I had been to a lot of potato chip companies and I thought, we could probably do this on a smaller scale.”

Of course, that was easy to say; harder to do. The years 2006 to 2009 were what Ryan calls the company’s product development stage: finding a niche, a distinct point of differentiation from the other potato chips on the market, was crucial. They opted to produce kettle-style chips exclusively, experimenting with more than 40 varieties of potatoes before settling on Russet and sweet potatoes.

“The big guys make kettle chips,” Albright says. “But it isn’t their main business. Kettle chips come from a different cooking process. You cook them in a big vat of oil in small batches at lower temperatures. It is a very slow process.”

And the other guys don’t use Russets—which bring their own challenges. Russet chips fry a little darker than conventional ones. In the early days, convincing a customer that the product wasn’t burned was sometimes a feat of salesmanship. “It has been difficult at times to educate the public,” Albright says. “They open up the bag and they’re used to seeing a bright, white chip. It can be tricky.”

Still, the plucky little company persevered. Having finally secured the land for the new factory, the Albrights began experimenting with tourism-assisted marketing schemes. They knew how popular the nearby covered bridge—a marvel of engineering—was with visitors from Ontario and Quebec.

Motor coaches regularly disgorged their passengers, who would linger, sometimes for an hour or more, gawking at the historic site. In any given year, as many as 100,000 people might pass right by the firm’s production facility. Why not invite them in for a guided tour?

“What better way to help the bridge and our chips?” Ryan says, laughing. “When they come through the factory, they get to see everything from start to finish: We wash the potatoes, peel them, grate them, spice them, cook them, season them. That first summer we were operating, we pretty much did everything around the bus schedules. In order to gain their confidence and show them that this was an exciting thing to come and see, we made sure we did everything right.”

The captive-audience approach has more than helped Covered Bridge select and expand its product lines and seasonings, from Smokin’ Sweet Barbecue to Tickle-Me-Blue Raspberry to Loaded Baked Potato and Atlantic Lobster. (The company currently has 35 flavours; folks in the Southern US are apparently wild about Cinnamon & Brown Sugar Sweet Potato Chips.)

Ryan’s most time-consuming responsibility at the moment is to secure suitable distribution channels. “Distribution is the biggest challenge—that and getting retailers to give us support. Today, we have six trucks. And we hire other distributors in Canada and the US. We’ve had some pretty good support, but at the same time we’re a small player in a big marketplace.”

Not that he’s complaining. The 500-acre farm and other nearby land he rents supplies the chip factory—now 9,000 square feet—with all the raw materials he needs now, and in the foreseeable future. Recently, he purchased a 35,000 square-foot warehouse in Woodstock. And though he is determined to expand, he prefers to grow sustainably.

“We want to see our numbers continue to double every year,” he says. “We want to branch out and develop new ideas. I never like to stay still—I like to seize any new opportunities I can find.”

And, as always, let the chips fall where they may.