By Jamie Siebrase | Mar 30, 2015
Employees: 2 (plus 2 independent contractors)
Co-founder Megan Reamer started making potato chips in her Crested Butte home to meet her ailing son's dietary needs. Today she battles Frito-Lay for shelf space and manages crisp growth.
North Americans spend nearly $28 billion annually on salty snacks like chips, the hands-down U.S. favorite. So, how do two people with no background in food production manage to capture a significant corner of the Frito-Lay dominated potato chip market? It's hard to understand the Jackson's Honest Chips story without first understanding its namesake: Jackson.
When two-year-old Jackson began losing his motor functions, doctors were stumped. Reamer and her husband and business partner, Scott Reamer, did what any parents might do: They tried to save their son.
"Basically," says Reamer, "we started him on the Paleo diet ten years ago -- before it was popular." The Reamers fed Jackson -- and their three other kids -- good proteins and saturated fats like lard, fish oil, and coconut oil. They wouldn't get a diagnosis for Jackson's rare variant of an autoimmune disorder for 10 years, but, in the meantime, dietary changes appeared to be working, and Jackson's degenerative condition eventually stabilized.
When Reamer began experimenting with homemade snacks, she substituted coconut oil for the vegetable oil traditionally used to fry potato chips, and kettle cooked small batches for family and friends. In 2011, Reamer told her husband, "We really need to put these in a bag and sell them."
"At first, he looked at me like I had four heads," she recalls. But, before long, the two were thinking about creating a nutritional label and what their bag might look like. By July 2012, their first official batch of Jackson's Honest Chips was processed in a commercial kitchen in Crested Butte, bagged in snack-size packaging and ready for retail.
"We were friends with the woman who owns the health food store in [Crested Butte], and she took 30 bags of chips," Reamer remembers. The next day, Reamer's friend called to say she'd need more chips -- and bigger bags of 'em, too.
That September, the Reamers started selling their chips online. Six months later, they'd shipped to all 50 states and ten countries. "By January 2013, we had realized we were going to need larger scale manufacturer," says Reamer. While the operation may have moved to a bigger facility in Denver, the original wholesome ingredients and kettle cooking technique endure.
The company got its first big break in late 2013 when Vitamin Cottage stocked its product in all 71 of its locations. Rocky Mountain region Whole Foods Markets picked up the brand in early 2014, and the natural foods giant has since offered the chips in other regions, too.
The Reamers have expanded their line to include sweet and purple potatoes, and began adding classic flavors like salt and vinegar and the forthcoming BBQ. A cinnamon-sugar sweet potato chip, Reamer confides, isn't out of the question.
Reamer demos her product frequently, and even the most steadfast chip bashers usually love Jackson's. Maybe it's the straightforward ingredients: non-GMO certified sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, or organic white potatoes processed simply with sea salt and organic coconut oil.
The Reamers opt for fresh, local crop whenever possible and have been buying regularly from Colorado farms in Hotchkiss and Paonia since inception; all of Jackson's purple potatoes are still grown in the San Luis Valley.
Jackson's is the only company cooking potato chips in coconut oil, which Reamer says is the source of the chips' addictive, slightly sweet flavor.
Kettle cooking is another distinction. Typical bagged chips are fried in a conveyer-belt-like process, whereas kettle chips are dunked in oil in smaller batches. When new potatoes are added, the oil's temperature lowers; the chips take longer to cook, which results in an irregular shape and thicker texture.
Challenges: Trying to gain shelf space. "There's a monopoly with Frito-Lay, and gaining access to shelf space has been a real challenge," says Reamer.
Opportunities: The Reamers prefer heirloom and varietal potatoes to white ones, and they might introduce another varietal chip soon. They've also considered dabbling in other snack foods. "We don't want to be a potato chip company -- we want to be a coconut oil snack company," Reamer says.
Needs: With so much growth happening Jackson's needs to focus on strategy now. "We're aware that there will likely be competition this year, and we want to understand our voice and our value to customers," says Reamer.