Sunday, November 14, 2021

Flashback 1997: In the chips at Jays

Tom Howe, at the Jays potato chip factory in 1997 (Photo by Rich Hein for the Sun-Times)

     Twitter gets a bad rap, and rightly so, what with all its helping fascists undermine spread lies and undermine democracy. But Twitter does have value. I was just wondering what to post today when I noticed a tweet by Natalie Y. Moore, WBEZ correspondent and author (I've read her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, it's excellent). She was waxing nostalgic: "My all-time favorite field trip as a kid was visiting the Jays potato chip factory. We got paper hats and free chips at the end."  Small world. My all-time favorite visit-to-a-factory stories was going to Jays.
      I liked this story, not just for the chips that I too got at the end (no paper hat, alas). But, because after absorbing the complicated clamor of a factory, with its complicated assembly lines and industrial processes, I realized what Jays' biggest challenge was: getting the chips from Point A to Point B, unbroken. 
     Jays went out of business in 2007, but the brand lives on, purchased by Snyder's. 

     A potato chip is a delicate thing. Fragile. A pound of pressure will crush it. So when you're moving 250 tons of chips through your plant, as they do every day at Jays Foods, you need to have a system.
     "You don't buy potato crumbs, you buy potato chips," said Tom Howe, CEO and co-owner of the Chicago company, at 99th and Cottage Grove. Jays makes 125 different types and brands of chips and several hundred varieties of popcorn, puffs, twists, pretzels and assorted bagged munchies.
     Jays combats the tendency of potato chips to crush into flinders with a variety of conveyer belts, radial filling chutes and gently vibrating slides, where masses of chips, a yard deep, are gradually massaged forward, the outer layer of chips shearing away like the face of a glacier.
     The raw material is far easier to handle. An entire semi-trailer of sturdy North Dakota "chipping" potatoes can be emptied in a matter of minutes, by backing the trailer onto a hydraulic lift, tilting it 45 degrees and letting the potatoes—grown for their thin skins and low moisture—tumble out.
     About a dozen semi-trailers' worth of potatoes arrive every day. The potatoes are immediately separated into big and small sizes for a purpose both reasonable and extraordinary: Big potatoes make big chips that go into large bags; small potatoes make small chips for lunch-size bags.
     "Nobody wants to open a small bag and find three big potato chips in it," Howe said.
     Computers keep track of everything, shunting potatoes to 15,000-pound holding bins. Each bin feeds into a pipe containing a turning screw—a version of the ancient Archimedes screw used to pump water—that moves the potatoes from the bin to conveyer belts, to where they are washed and skinned, the skin scrubbed off by metal bristle brushes.
     No machine can detect if a potato is rotten inside. So a pair of human inspectors reach into the passing brown parade and give the potatoes a quick squeeze. Occasionally, they snatch one and slice it open, usually revealing black areas of rot, a skill they attribute to experience.
     "I know," said Alicia Jimenez, asked to explain what about a potato tips her off to slice it open and find rot.
     The naked potatoes are sent into high-speed chippers—spinning brass rings, each with eight blades inside, straight blades for straight chips, ripple blades for ripple chips.
     The blades cut the potatoes, but the potatoes take their revenge. Every three hours the blades are dulled and the line must be stopped so the old rings can be replaced by new rings with sharpened blades.
     The sheer quantity of slicing spews big foamy banks of starch from either side of the chipper, which calls to mind a washing machine gone berserk.
     Potato chips account for about 55 percent of Jays' business. Older Chicagoans might remember the chips were called "Mrs. Japp's Potato Chips," for the wife of Leonard Japp Sr., who founded the company in 1927.
     Then came Dec. 7, 1941. Two days after Pearl Harbor, Japp's was changed to Jays—no apostrophe, since there is no "Jay."
     "They recognized it was not in vogue to call something 'Japp,' " Howe said.
     The raw chips spend three minutes cooking in hot corn oil, which is constantly circulated and filtered. Then they are salted, and flavorings—barbecue, for instance, or sour cream and onion, are added.
     After the chips are fried, there is another quality check, in which women pluck burned and deformed chips out of the masses passing by. The chips are conveyed on a link grid, wide enough to let broken chips fall through.
     The chips also are laser-inspected, rushing, in a single layer, over a complex device called an Opti-Sort Scanner. Chips with dark spots or holes are detected by a laser, which instructs one of 82 small tubes to fire a puff of air that knocks the substandard chip off the line, into a discard bin.
     The discards—about 3 percent of production—are gathered up and used: Starch is drawn out and sold to cornstarch makers; the rest goes to hog feed. Just as the stockyards were said to use every part of the pig but the squeal, at Jays every part of the potato is used but the rich, earthy smell.
     Jays even tried to sell burnt chips to the public once, about 20 years ago. "Consumers kept telling us they liked the brown chips," said Len Japp Jr., recalling the "Brownies" variety. "It went over like a lead balloon." Japp and his father, now 93 and honorary chairman of the board, sold the company to Borden in 1986. "They almost ruined it," Howe said, citing a slump in product quality and neglect of the Jays distribution system. "They lost the connection with the consumer."
     By 1994, Jays was on the rocks and the Japps, allied with Howe, bought the company back. "Not too many people have a second chance in life," said Japp, whose children are in the company.
     Getting the chips in the bags is another challenge: You can't just fill up bags and seal them; the chips would be smashed. Rather, a conveyer pours chips -- gently -- on the central hub of a large, wheel-like device, where the chips scatter into 15 buckets that are, basically, scales. A computer monitors the weight of each bucket and opens up the exact combination that, in this case, will fill a 14-ounce bag. The bags are packed into boxes that read: "HANDLE LIKE EGGS."
     While not exactly perishable, potato chips do have a shelf life of about eight weeks, only one day of which is spent at the plant.
     "Potatoes that are in this morning will be in our branches tomorrow morning, ready to hit the streets," Howe said. Jays is still a regional brand, sold in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri. But business has grown 50 percent in the past two years.
     "We connect to people's lifestyle," Howe said. "People treat themselves with Jays. We're in the fun food business."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1997



13 comments:

  1. "Nobody wants to open a small bag and find three big potato chips in it," Howe said.

    I would feel like I just won the lottery.

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  2. As I age and attempt to whittle away at my vices, potato chips somehow always survive the whittling blade.

    Would love to have toured this factory, as many Chicagoans evidently did. I don't recall when, but I believe that I learned the obvious, though unpondered fact that "Big potatoes make big chips that go into large bags; small potatoes make small chips for lunch-size bags" from you at some point subsequent to this column.

    One of the things I like about chips is that they're a product that has managed to survive the monopolization characteristic of the end-times capitalism ruining so many other aspects of society. Though there are the heavy hitters, of course, and Jays themselves are no longer made in that factory, one can still get "local" chips in many, many places, which I've enjoyed doing ever since I can remember.

    Tongue-in-cheek suggestion: the cheery photo atop the blog, of a mountain of potato chips tumbling down one machine before beginning their ascent up another conveyor, should be the default EGD photo every day! : )

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  3. * "The chips are conveyed on a link grid, wide enough to let broken chips fall through".

    * "Chips with dark spots or holes are detected by a laser, which instructs one of 82 small tubes to fire a puff of air that knocks the substandard chip off the line, into a discard bin."

    * "A conveyer pours chips -- gently -- on the central hub of a large, wheel-like device, where the chips scatter into 15 buckets that are, basically, scales."

    Three "golden" opportunities to remark "Let the chips fall where they may..." But you resisted, Mr. S, although I wouldn't have. Which is why you write the stories--and I write the comments.

    From the very beginning, "Mrs. Japp's"..and then Jays...had a competitor called New Era, out of Detroit. New Era Potato chips came in big tins, with lids and beautiful Art Deco graphics--red, yellow and black. The tins had the company's logo and "A healthy food...scientifically processed" on the sides.

    The packaging was what attracted me, as the chips were nothing special. Frito-Lay bought out New Era in the early Eighties. Those big Fifties tins are now a rare find, and prized by collectors of Deco.

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    Replies
    1. Now that you mention it, I remember Jays had tins as well.

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    2. Hell,yes...they were navy blue and white. They are also valuable collectibles. I was going to mention them, but edited my comment for length and space.

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  4. Okay, now I see it's necessary to have all that air in a chip bag.

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  5. I’m not a big chips gal, perhaps because once I start, I don’t want to stop! But I loved Jays, especially in the big box with two bags inside format. Gotta put in a plug for Zapp’s (New Orleans born, if not currently made). Cool flavors, which I most frequently run across locally at Potbelly.

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    Replies
    1. Those are swell, Coey, but I consider them a pricey treat when at Potbelly, given that I'm partial to getting 30-ounce bags of Cape Cod chips at Costco and dumping them into the trough I feed from. ; )

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    2. Thanks, Jakash, for your day-after comment. I missed this yesterday and as usual with Neil's factory adventures, I found it informative, entertaining and imaginative. The "puff" reference, despite the mention of 82 tubes brought to my mind the image of a woman with perked lips and ballooned cheeks blowing spoiled and cracked chips off the conveyor belt.

      john

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    3. Coey, I can go you one better: I don't even like potato chips, but eat just one and... an empty bag ensues.

      john

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    4. Can’t stop eating ‘em!

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    5. Treat yourself, Jakash; you’re worth it! (I’m assuming you don’t go to Potbelly daily.)

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    6. Missing an entertaining EGD post is not something I'd have expected to read in one of your comments, John, but you're welcome. : )

      Worth it? Doubtful. Not only not daily, Coey, but it's actually been quite a while since I've been to Potbelly, though I like them.

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