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Wachusett Potato Chip Co. is swallowed whole.

Byline: Aaron Nicodemus

COLUMN: ON BUSINESS

Wachusett potato chips are beloved in this region. Salty and crisp, they come in two versions (thin and rippled) and a variety of flavors, including barbeque, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, no salt added, and ketchup (popular in Canada, or so I'm told). The onion and garlic flavor was recently discontinued. Although the company distributes pretzels and cheese twists under the Wachusett name, those are made elsewhere, and packed and shipped by Wachusett.

Since 1939, the Krysiak family has been producing Wachusett chips, first in Clinton, and now in the decommissioned former Fitchburg County Jail on Water Street. (The only remnants of its former use as a jail are the building's gabled roof and the thick walls of the former holding pen, which now is used for storage).

At one time, there were 14 independent potato chip producers in New England, including Tri-Sum in Leominster. Wachusett was the last one standing.

Last week, I reported that the Wachusett Potato Chip Co. has been purchased by the Utz Snack Food Co. of Hanover, Pa., for an undisclosed sum. (The factory on Water Street sold to Utz for $1.7 million).

I spoke with Edward S. Krysiak, president of Wachusett Potato Chip, at the factory last week. As part of the sale, Utz has hired all 50 of Wachusett's workers and agreed to one- and two-year deals to keep all the senior managers in place, including Mr. Krysiak. The handover to Utz occurred at midnight on Sept. 30, but Mr. Krysiak said while former Wachusett employees are employed and paid by Utz, not much else has changed on the factory floor.

"They've been here for months, poking around, checking everything, asking every question they could think of," Mr. Krysiak said of Utz executives. "I answered every one. I've got nothing to hide. I'm proud of what we've got going on here."

Utz approached the Krysiak family over the summer with a proposal to buy, Mr. Krysiak said. Utz was looking to expand its presence in New England, and it had two choices: buy or build. Utz looked at land in Devens to build a new factory, but in the end decided to buy its competitor.

Why did Wachusett sell?

Mr. Krysiak said, simply, that it was just the right time.

He's 74, and his brother and two sisters who work in the factory are getting up in age. His two nephews, Barry Krysiak, who is in charge of sales, and Gregory Krysiak, in charge of production, are poised to carry on the family tradition. They have signed two-year deals with Utz.

"I love coming to work every day," Edward Krysiak said. "If I didn't like the business, I could have left a lot earlier."

So, what is the difference between Utz potato chips and Wachusett potato chips?

Mr. Krysiak says they are very, very similar. Both companies use the same varieties of potatoes, often coming from the same suppliers and farms. They both fry them in cottonseed oil. They both use the same packaging company.

The difference?

Utz chips are cut slightly thicker, Mr. Krysiak said.

Last week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Utz employees took over production to see if Utz chips could be produced with Wachusett equipment. They used the slightly thicker cut, and ran the machines for two eight-hour shifts. Employees filled Wachusett potato chip bags as usual.

"I wonder if anyone noticed the difference?" he asked.

Mr. Krysiak told me some interesting facts that are not on the company's website.

For one, about half of the chips produced at the plant go into bags not bearing the Wachusett brand name. The factory produces chips under the Block & Barrel name, sold by the huge food distributor, Sysco Corp. The factory also produces store-brand potato chips for Price Chopper, Roche Bros. and Cumberland Farms.

Wachusett once produced Stop & Shop-brand potato chips for supermarkets in upstate New York, but when Stop & Shop was purchased, the new owners decided to consolidate all potato chip production with one company.

Last week, he gave me the dime tour, proudly showing off the high-tech equipment that has automated his plant and allowed him to trim down his workforce by 10 over the course of a decade.

There is a huge two-story hopper in the rear of the factory that can hold two tractor-trailer loads of potatoes.

The potatoes used to have to be cleaned, he said, but Frito-Lay started requiring its producers to clean potatoes before they were shipped. Now Mr. Krysiak gets clean potatoes as well.

Mr. Krysiak said that Utz could double the output of the factory by installing new ovens in a space right next to his current ovens.

He predicted Utz may hire as many as 20 new employees, but said the factory is currently not hiring. "They could double the output. They could quadruple it. Really, it is up to them," he said.

Contact Aaron Nicodemus via email at anicodemus@telegram.com or at (508) 793-9245
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS MATTERS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 23, 2011
Words:833
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