DAYTON — Around the same time Wilbur and Orville Wright were introducing the world to manned flight and Charles Kettering was working on the self-starting automobile ignition, Daniel W. Mikesell was trying to make his way in the business world.
Eventually, he found potato chips, and if he didn’t exactly invent them, he had an early hand in perfecting one of the world’s snack food staples. This year, the company is celebrating its 100th year making chips, and still makes them in Dayton, at 333 Leo St.
“We produce all our potato and kettle chips here,” said Luke Mapp, the great-grandson of Mikesell and the company’s sales and marketing administrator. “In Indiana, we have puff corn and cheese corn. We’ve had many expansions here, but when we needed room, we wanted to expand our footprint. So we moved to Indianapolis. We made some chips over there at one time, but moved them back here.”
Mikesell — who changed the name of the company in 1925 to Mike-Sell’s as a play on words — did not start out to make potato chips, which were known as Saratoga chips. Those chips are traced to Adirondack Indian George Crum in 1853, when he made them in his Saratoga Springs, N.Y., restaurant for a disgruntled customer who wanted his fried potatoes crispier.
An agitated Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as he could and fried them.
Other companies tried variations since, but nothing lasted until the Leominster Potato Chip Co. in Leominster, Mass., began making chips in 1908.
That was two years before Mikesell started. Rich Duchesneau believes his grandfather, J.P., stopped chip production for a period of time, and the company also changed its name to Tri-Sum.
That Tri-Sum held a 100th anniversary celebration two years ago does not deter Luke Mapp from guessing his company is the oldest continuous potato chip operation in the world. Not only that, Mike-Sell’s continues to be made in Dayton, while Tri-Sum farmed out its operation to Wooster, Ohio, and has the bags of chips shipped back East.
In the early days, Mapp said, Mikesell delivered his chips on a bicycle route, and when his transportation needed repairs, he called on the Wright brothers.
A Miami County lad who moved to Dayton in 1906 at the age of 23, Mikesell worked in wholesale and retail dry goods and as a collector for one of the city’s two telephone companies.
Family history does not offer suggestions as to why he bought a second-hand dried beef slicer, but he did, and shortly after, he bought equipment to make “Saratoga chips.”
The year was 1910, and potato chips were being introduced to Dayton.
It remains a family business, although a few years ago, David R. Ray became the third CEO and the only non-family member to head the company. Mikesell’s son-in-law, Leslie Mapp, was the long-time second CEO.
“Frito-Lay is the biggest (potato chip) company,” Ray said. “If you took all the rest of the companies, they would comprise less than a third of the Frito-Lay (owned by Pepsico) business. There are very few private companies like ours left.
“This company survived because of a very loyal customer base. We’re a regional company and probably have 30 percent of the market here in Dayton. We’re a $50 million (a year) company, but that’s in a $12-15 billion market.”
Mike-sell’s does most of its business in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and central Illinois. Running distribution lines further than that is too costly. Making chips can be costly. Because potatoes are loaded with water, Luke Mapp says only a pound of chips come out of every four pounds of potatoes.
Mike-Sell’s, like its competition, makes many kinds of chips, including old fashioned, regular, groovy and kettle chips, and eight flavors, such as barbecue and sour cream and onion.
Mike-Sell’s current location was built in 1955, and Luke Mapp says his company has had continuous growth.
“People are still buying, but cost has become a factor at the market,” Mapp said.
He also said snack foods sometimes are unfairly slandered.
“I cringe more about government telling people we’re getting bigger (fatter), and it’s all about food,” Mapp said. “It’s a lifestyle. We’re sedentary. It’s not just a food problem. It’s a lifestyle problem. I don’t think you can blame it entirely on food. There are worse things out there. You can’t blame it (all) on chips.”