By ANN ALI ∙ email@example.com
Comfort food is a real thing.
So when Mister Bee calls itself West Virginia's potato chip, it's not just because it's the only potato chip made in West Virginia.
It's also because the sight of the gentlemanly bee with a top hat, coupled with the salty smell and light, fresh potato crunch of the snack means something to the vast majority of West Virginians.
Mister Bee has co-starred in countless lunches, family reunions and cookouts, and business is buzzing for Mister Bee.
The company started in 1951 by Leo and Sara Klein grew to a $1 million business by 1972. But the company filed for bankruptcy in November 2011, and operations came to a halt.
Rick Barton and Randall Holden, who founded Wincore, the Parkersburg-based window and door company, launched West Virginia Potato Chip Company LLC in 2012 to purchase the brand and the secrets of the process, bringing the chips back to life.
The two men grew up in Doddridge County. Holden said while they had some attachment to the brand, he also saw his two sons nearing the post-college age and didn't want to see them or any other young West Virginians leave the state for work.
The over-arching goal is for the brand? To be known far and wide as West Virginia's chip.
The six-month hiatus when no chips were made bearing the bee's logo is still hurting business, Holden said, but they're making inroads.
Director of Sales and Marketing Jonathan Betancourt explained how several stores that previously sold the chips filled their shelves with other things in the interim.
"We don't blame them," Betancourt said. "You have to earn your stripes and earn your shelf space."
And it's happening.
Holden said he was able to bring back 89 percent of Mister Bee's original employees, among them the sales guys who drove the routes to get the chips in the stores.
"With any business, you have to have relationships, and a lot of these guys are our front-line people," he said. "You have to convince these (stores) you'll stay around, and our guys are doing a really great job."
As for how windows translate to potatoes, Holden said brand consistency, standards and quality cross all fields.
He said Mister Bee's growing relationships will help to grow its distribution, as well. Sledd Co. has been the Mister Bee distributor for Little General stores, and Mister Bee made an appearance at the Oil Marketers and Grocers Association trade show this year.
Holden doesn't believe in making more product than what's necessary because the freshness is an integral part of the chip. He said the factory, which is in the same building as the administrative offices on the north end of Parkersburg, is currently cranking chips through the conveyor belt 30 hours a week.
The cooker can make 1,200 pounds of chips per hour, and the 1-pound bag of original chips is the top seller, Betancourt said. Not surprisingly, it's the No. 1 chip sold in Wood County Walmart stores. The second most popular Mister Bee variety is the 1-pound bag of the barbecue flavor, and customers remind the company daily that nothing needs to be changed. Holden said the long-ago switch of cooking oil to cut the trans fats in the chips received such backlash they wouldn't dream of ever changing a thing.
"We hear loud and clear on social media not to change the product," he said.
Holden said he's exercising patience to allow the process of trust and discovery to grow the brand to the far-reaches of the state where it hasn't been able to penetrate so far.
"There's no magic wand – it's a process," he said. "We're miles ahead of where we were.
"You have to be committed, and you have to service a store three and four times a week."
But they're reaching out to the community at large, not just through the Wood County fundraisers and little league sponsorships. Through social media they rewarded a young girl who drew a captivating version of the Mister Bee logo and planned to send 2-ounce bags to 300 sailors on the USS Preble for Independence Day.
The chips currently are sold at 90 percent of the state's GoMart locations, Wood County Speedway locations, many Walmart locations, several Kroger stores, and Wood County IGA and Foodfair locations.