Mrs. Ihrie's owner tastes potential in potato chips


November 07, 1992|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

It was inevitable.

The owner of an Eastern Shore seafood-seasoning company buys an old-line potato chip plant in Baltimore and presto: chips flavored with crab seasoning.

The introduction of a crab-seasoning chip is just one of the many changes Joseph Bernard has made at Mrs. Ihrie's since he acquired the West Baltimore processing plant in May.

"Over the last four months this place has gone through one of the biggest transformations that I've every seen in a company," says Mr. Bernard, a fast-talking and energetic 38-year-old businessman who started Wye River Inc. in his garage eight years ago and turned it into a $5.5-million-a-year operation.

Mr. Bernard saw potential at Mrs. Ihrie's before making the acquisition. "I thought there was potential there," he says. He laughs for a second or two and adds, "But nobody else could see it."

There's no misunderstanding his intentions. Joseph Bernard wants to bring Mrs. Ihrie's back to the heyday of the mid-1970s when it dominated the Maryland potato chip market with a share of 30 percent to 35 percent.

Looking at a market within a 200-mile radius of the North Smallwood Street plant, he says, "It should be all ours. We're the only darn potato chip company in the state."

So far, he says while darting through the factory, sales and production are up about 35 percent. On an average day the plant ships about 25,000 pounds of potato chips.

"We're doing almost $1 million a month now," he says of sales. While Mr. Bernard won't share his earnings statement, he says Mrs. Ihrie's is profitable.

Back in May he was looking at a plant that had suffered from years of neglect. Mrs. Ihrie's share of the Baltimore area potato chip market had gone down, down, down the past 15 years, and employee morale went along for the ride.

To achieve the goals he has set for Mrs. Ihrie's, Mr. Bernard says he is adopting the same strategy he used to build Wye River.

One of his first moves was to build up the work force. At a time when many companies were cutting back, he boosted wages about 10 percent, bringing the average factory worker's pay to about $7 a hour. He increased health insurance benefits, installed a 401(k) retirement savings plan with a dollar-for-dollar company match and cut the time needed to earn a week's vacation from five years to one.

"If we're going to turn it around," Mr. Bernard says, "we needed the support of our people." Mr. Bernard ticked off other steps he's taken to rejuvenate the company:

"We've pumped over $300,000 into this building and for repairs of equipment since May.

"We've painted the entire building, inside and out. It's the pride of the neighborhood.

"We fixed the roof. That was $65,000. When it would rain, the water would pour in. That was one of our first big jobs. We've put in new lights."

"We've come up with a new Mrs. Ihrie's logo. It's more modern, more stylish. We're getting new uniforms for our workers. That's another $25,000. They'll be nice -- red-and-white striped hats, striped shirts and khaki slacks."

He continues: "We've redesigned our packaging to feature the city skyline and a decorative pattern based on the iron work at Camden Yards. And it says 'proudly made in Baltimore.' We brought back the old company slogan, 'a pip of a chip,' that hasn't been used since the '60s."

The work force is now 117 workers, up from 70 in May.

"We added a second shift, and there were times when we were running 18 to 20 hours a day," he said.

Mr. Bernard estimates that Mrs. Ihrie's now controls about 2.5 percent of a Baltimore-area chip market that is dominated by Utz and Snyder's, both from Pennsylvania, up from the 1.7 percent share it had when he took over the 70-year-old company.

"We've added about 250 chain stores since May," he says.

He says another big victory was recapturing the market for 1-ounce bags of potato chips in the Baltimore schools by undercutting the competition by a couple of cents a bag.

"We're not making a killing on this," he says, "but we're making a little bit of money. The important thing was to let people know we're out there again."

"We got back the Anne Arundel County school system, the Harford County school system. We got the Naval Academy back, the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup and the Baltimore city jail," he added.

In four months, Mrs. Ihrie's has already outgrown the 45,000-square-foot factory it has occupied since the end of World War II. Mr. Bernard says the company is negotiating to lease another structure of comparable size to house a new distribution center and offices.

His words keep coming fast and to the point. "We want to keep on increasing sales. We want to keep on adding new people. We want to make more, sell more and keep building," he says.

Mr. Bernard pauses for not more than a second to collect his thoughts and blurts out: "Yeah, I'm having fun with the company. It's great. . . . We have a new image. The company and the people have been lifted up again."

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