BY TIM KEENAN | JOSH SCOTT
Downey's Potato Chips in Waterford Township is methodically expanding from a local delicacy to a statewide staple.
Downey's Potato Chips in Waterford Township has made great strides since its humble beginnings in the Waterfall Plaza strip mall in 1984. Back then, the hand-crafted kettle-fried chips were sold to local clients the day they were made. They were packaged in individual resealable bags and sold while the day's supplies lasted. Now, from a 5,000-square-foot operation a couple of miles down Highland Road (M-59) from the original store, Downey's produces 3,000 bags of chips per week and delivers to 228 stores in southeast Michigan.
Rosemary Downey Hogarth and her family founded the company, which eventually outgrew the strip mall space and moved to its current location.In 2012, the Hogarth family sold Downey's to Waterford Township's Bagley Land Holdings Building and Development Corp., owned by Patrick J. Bagley. He's also co-founder of Bagley & Langan, a general law practice in the township. Under Bagley's ownership, Downey's continued mild growth until the FDA, in June 2018, required that all processed and packaged foods in the United States remove partially hydrogenated oils from their ingre- dients, citing the move would prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year. As Downey's changed its recipe, some customers found the new chips lacking in flavor, and sales slipped. Looking to spark a turnaround, Downey's tested multiple different oils and combinations and finally landed on sunflower oil, which is healthier and of higher quality than the ingredients it replaced.
Soon after, Bagley's daughter, Kali, graduated from Michigan State University and, after testing the waters of public relations, she decided she'd rather join the family business.
"As I was getting my feet wet in PR, I came to realize it wasn't my passion," Kali Bagley says. “I never thought potato chips would become my pas- sion, but I love this job and I love this company. It's invigorating and challenging to run a small busi- ness. I love what we stand for. I love our connection with customers and our devotion to incredibly high-quality products."
Kali Bagley, general manager of Downey's Potato Chips in Waterford Township, relaxes in the company's root room, where Michigan-grown potatoes begin their journey to become potato chips. Kali started as a social media manager in 2019, but soon took on more and more responsibility, eventually becoming general manager. "When I got here, I realized we could be doing so much more with this business," she says. "We did a rebrand in 2021 to really try to relate to customers what our values are hand-crafted, family owned and operated, transparent. That came from the Downey's. We kept the name because there's so much community support and brand awareness in this area. We want to embrace their legacy."
Part of the Downeys legacy is the end product: a gourmet potato chip that looks like a standard chip but is solid enough to hold its own in the dip bowl. The company currently produces four core chip flavors: Original Sea Salt (which accounts for more than 50 percent of total sales), Sea Salt and Vinegar, Barbeque, and No Salt."It took a lot of fine-tuning to get the chips just right," Kali says. "It was a process. We have an inertial slicer whose blade must be set at a specific width. When I first got here, we were still trying to make that perfect width of a chip. Not too crunchy, not too thick, but also not too light and flimsy where it would just break."
The production of Downey's Potato Chips starts with the main ingredient - Michigan-grown potatoes. "Getting the perfect chipping potato, with none of the defects, light skin, good gravity (potato mass to water), is incredibly challenging," Kali explains.Downey's sources its potatoes from Walther Farms, a third-generation, family-owned business in Three Rivers, south of Kalamazoo. The farm produces more than 18,000 acres of commercial and seed potatoes for both the potato chip and fresh produce markets. It also has 150 employees, as well as operations in southern Indiana, the Nebraska panhandle, southern Texas, western Oklahoma, western Kansas, southwest Georgia, and western South Carolina. Seed operations are conducted in northern Michigan.
Once the potatoes arrive at Downey's, they're placed on a conveyor that sends the spuds into an automated peeler/washer. Peeler operators inspect the peeled potatoes and remove any that could make an undesirable chip. From there the potatoes hit the slicer and are automatically put into the fryer at 300 degrees for four to five minutes.
"While the chips are frying, they're being watched the whole time," Kali says. "They get turned over by a worker with a food-quality rake, and the frying is com- plete when the worker thinks the chips look done."
Bagley says the key to product quality is "making our chips the old-fashioned way" using automation, but still involving the human touch to sort and select the finest potatoes.Once the frying process is over, a conveyor removes the fried chips from the oil and takes them to another set of inspectors. Chips that make the grade are moved via a vibrating conveyor to the seasoning drum, which rotates while oil and seasonings are applied.
"We used to season by hand but now we have an industrial-size seasoner because it gives us unifor- mity and reliability," Kali explains. "Seasoning by hand just wasn't giving us that consistency." From there the chips go to a packaging machine, which measures eight ounces of chips and drops them into bags to complete the process. "Every single batch of our chips is fried and inspected by hand before it goes into a bag," Kali says. "It takes a lot of love and care." Once Bagley had the Downey's chips where she wanted them, she set about getting them into more people's hands.
Between August 2022 and January 2023, Downey's delivered to 227 stores, up from 136 locations. The growth spurt was primarily due to Downey's expansion into all of Kroger's stores in southeast Michigan. The chips are sold at grocery stores throughout metro Detroit.
and higher sales among stores like Westborn Market, Papa Joe's, Nino Salvaggio, Vince and Joe's, Hollywood Market, Holiday Market, and a few Meijer outlets. It took several months after the Kroger decision was made to deliver chips to all of the stores. To meet the schedule, Downey's boosted production by 67 percent and augmented its in-house delivery department with a distribution company."When we were getting ready for the Kroger expansion, I wanted to make sure we were completely buttoned up and ready to under-promise and over-deliver," Kali recalls. "We had to add a couple thou- sand extra pounds of potatoes, but other than that we didn't have to stretch too much. I think that says alot about the capacity we have here."To meet the increased. demand, the company bought a new peeler/washer last year that had a $30,000 price tag. According to Bagley, in its current space and equipment, Downey's could pump out as many as 6,000 bags of chips per day.
She may need that capacity if her expansion plans come to fruition."I would love to make our way across and up Michigan," she says. "I would like to make a bag of chips accessible to every Michigander."