Martin Sidor is a third-generation farmer, whose family began growing potatoes in the sandy Eastern Long Island soil in 1908. Sidor has the heavy hands and easy demeanor of a man who’s spent his life working the earth but also realizes that no matter how much he and his wife Carol love growing potatoes on their 170-acre family farm, it’s still a business. Large Midwest farms with newer potato varieties that shipped and stored well were making it more and more challenging to stay in business. “We realized we had to make a decision. We got into chips to diversify,” Sidor said from the kitchen-table office in his Mattituck, N.Y. farmhouse. “We know potatoes. Chips are an in-line diversification.”
Before moving to chips, Sidor had tried a few other crops such as cabbage and cauliflower to diversify his offerings but neither could provide the cash the farm needed. He also considered raising tobacco during the 1990’s cigar boon. “Tobacco was grown on Eastern Long Island many years ago and is grown commercially across Long Island Sound in Connecticut,” he said. “I thought about growing tobacco but decided against it.”
In 2005 they took the plunge by purchasing an entire lineup of machinery needed for commercial chip production. The second-hand machinery was bought from a Midwest facility to clean, cut, cook, salt, dry and pack their chips. “A consultant taught us how to operate the machinery but we had to learn a lot ourselves,” Sidor said. “It took a lot of adjusting and learning to deal with things like temperature and humidity and how they impact the process.” They then focused on growing Andover and Marcy varieties as each provides a healthy yield and makes a good chip. The spent frying oil is used to operate some of their farm machinery.
The Sidors drew on the local Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Riverhead, N.Y., for technical guidance. “Storage was an issue,” said Dale Moyer, Agricultural Program Director. “Table-stock varieties generally don’t chip well.” Chip potato storage needs to be 45-50 degrees the Sidors learned, warmer than most table stock. “They needed a potato that would chip to a light brown or tan color and store well. “Retail shoppers generally don’t like it, preferring a whiter stock,” Moyer said. While the Sidors chip their own potatoes, humidity and sugar conversion remain major storage hazards. It takes about four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of chips. “Potatoes do not condition well,” Sidor said, who retrofitted a 60-by-100-foot building with a misting machine and oxygen-exchanger.
While learning to produce high-quality chips on a commercial scale requires one skill, getting them onto retailers’ shelves and into consumers’ hands calls for another.
“In the beginning I thought it would be simple,” recalls Sidor with wry smile. “I thought retailers would welcome our chips. A lot of them just didn’t care or space was a problem.”
Sidor and his daughters, Cheryl and Maureen began by visiting local retailers. Their timing was good as it coincided with the growing “buy/eat local” movement. “We were met with a lot of rejection and skepticism,” Sidor said. “We budgeted no money for marketing. I misjudged the fact that people would be supportive but learned not to take rejection personally.”
Gradually they won over consumer acceptance and North Fork Potato Chips began serving a stable of regular clients. Today their six chip varieties are shipped through eight distributors and numerous independent wholesalers and have been sold in all 50 states. They are also in one Long Island supermarket chain and next year will be the official chip for the Long Island Ducks, an independent baseball team founded by former New York Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in nearby Islip, N.Y. “We’re a perfect match in terms of demographics,” Sidor said. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge baseball fan. North Fork Chips were also distributed at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami. Word-of-mouth marketing has also grown awareness when former New York Mayor Ed Koch, described the chips as one of his favorite snacks. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who sometimes vacations in the area, is also known to be a fan. Other promising markets include New York City-based hotel bars, the wedding gift-bag market and internet sales (http://www.northforkchips.com). Locally, they’ve made significant inroads with the tourist economy, selling their chips at nearly each of the 40+ Long Island wineries and many roadside farm stands and independent stores. The privately held, family company does not disclose sales but acknowledges occasionally buying potatoes from other growers in other states to meet demand.
“This isn’t corporate America,” Sidor said. “It’s a family business.”
By Joseph Finora