BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
BURLINGTON – It’s been a long summer for Craig Smith and the iconic Sterzing’s brand potato chip.
After the Food and Drug Administration implemented a phasing out of oils containing trans fats in 2015, the writing was on the wall and changes were coming.
There rarely is a potluck, picnic or party in the region that won’t showcase the familiar red-and-pale yellow bags with the salty and snappy chip that Iowans and beyond have been snacking on for almost eight decades.
But then the chip maker ran out of inventory of the original oil used to make the chips and had to transition into the new trans-fat free cooking agent.
According to Sterzing Food Co. President, Craig Smith, that’s where trouble began. But…better news may be on the horizon.
Smith said the company’s food scientists have been tinkering with the formula for a good portion of the year trying to find ways to abide by the new regs, but get close to the original flavor and texture that loyal customers were accustomed to.
“We started out with this new formula and it appealed to a lot of people, but didn’t resonate with our loyal fan base,” Smith said Friday morning. “Our focus was on the taste and the mouth feel and texture and that has taken a long time.”
But he said Friday the newest tweaks have resulted in a chip that just may be worthy of the customers looking for that original Sterzing chip.
“I had a bag in the hands of the previous owners and they said, ‘We think you got it’,” Smith said. “That’s as high a regard as I can ask for.”
That family included the daughters of Dutch Duttweiler, who bought the business in 1959 from Barney Sterzing. Sterzing started the company in 1933 as an off-shoot from his candy business and, when sugar rationing took place during WWII, Smith said Sterzing dumped the candy portion of the business and turned his focus to making a chip that has been in high demand regionally and regularly shipped across the nation. After an inter-family sale of the company to Duttweiler’s daughters, Smith and current Chief Financial Officer Gary Schmeiser purchased the company in 2011.
In May, the company held a chip-tasting at Community Field in Burlington and got mixed reactions and went back to the drawing board. The chip at that time had a feel and texture that would be considered a “kettle” chip, with a heavier crunch.
Smith said a lot of people liked the new offering, but it was, and still is, the company’s goal to do everything possible to get back to the original taste and composition of a Sterzing potato chip.
He said it’s difficult to just implement change because the production process requires a lot of inventory of potatoes, oil, and salt and you have to work through those inventories, while making minor adjustments to the recipe based on what customers are saying.
“Once you buy the oils and potatoes, you have to go through the process and it’s getting a lot better, but we’re not sure if we’re there yet or not,” Smith said. “We’re waiting for this latest blend to get out in full supply and see what customers are saying.”
If this version of the chip fares well with critics, Smith said the company will probably do another launch and maybe do some social media to encourage everyone else to get a bag and, well….Tri-Some.
He said the company didn’t want to do another full-on roll-out until they were getting responses that were more favorable to the original recipe.
“We didn’t want to put out a brand new product and say ‘here it is, take or or leave it’,” he said. “Our continued goal is to mimic that original product. We didn’t want to find ourselves in the repeated position of having customers buying a bag and it would be different, and then it would be different again, and different again. That’s very frustrating.”
BTW…. it was always Gluten free
Smith said the company made an “interesting” marketing decision when they started labeling the bags “Gluten-Free”.
“What people didn’t realize is that it was always gluten free. We were getting dozens of calls each week asking us if we had gluten in them. We put that on our bags to make it very clear, but there’s never been gluten in our chips. After people started seeing things change, we had lots of calls from people telling us to put the gluten back in,” he said with a laugh.
In what is probably the clearest picture of the demand for the original Sterzing, Smith said customers desperate for that one-of-a-kind flavor were suggesting tongue-in-cheek, that the company get their oil on the black market and sell the chips that way.
Short of that, Smith said customer reaction to the most recent recipe blend that is in production now has been favorable and that blend is in production and hitting stores currently. He’s waiting for responses to how they set up in the bag and then if things are still on the right track a promotional period may begin.
“We’re gonna load the market up and hopefully start hearing some better comments,” he said “We’re not responding publicly or through social media because there are so many comments and I just don’t like to address naysayers. When we’re there we’re gonna talk about it.”
What about the Kettle-style?
Smith said the company has discussed keeping it as an option because many did enjoy the chip. It just wasn’t the original Sterzing and that is ultimately the product they are looking for. He said the company has the equipment to continue to make that product as well as do some flavorings, but all that is on the back burner until people respond positively to the regular Sterzings.
“We’re slow at making change. It took us 80 years to learn how to make popcorn,” he said. “But it’s always been fun making chips,” he said.
He asked customers to hold on and keep trying the product as that’s the best way for the company to know how the chips taste.
“Be patient with us and understand it is our goal to continually move to our original product,” he said. “Through our discoveries, we’re finding steps we can take to get there. It’s simple to say ‘do this and you’ll have that’, but trying to match our original oil has been more difficult than we anticipated. From our testing now, we are very close we believe. At some point we’ll have to say this is where we’re at for a while, so customers know they will get the same product. The problem with that is that we’re still moving through the processes.”
Smith encouraged customers to just stop by and say hello and continue to give feedback through the company’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Sterzing-Potato-Chips-35704641316 by email at email@example.com; or by calling 800-754-8467.
“They’re welcome to stop by and say hello,” Smith said. “I’m more than happy to meet with people and let them tell us their Sterzing story.”