April 18, 2014

Elyria
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Thomasson brand of chips to make its last bow

061811chipslide

Jones Potato Chips is thriving and looking to go national, according to owner Robert Jones, but that rosy-looking future will not include the Elyria-born Thomasson brand of potato chips.

Jones confirmed Friday that the Thomasson’s brand, which was acquired by Jones in 1996, will be phased out over a six- to eight-month period.

“There was a little bit of slower sales, but it was mainly an issue of Thomasson just not being as efficient an operation for us as other things we produce,” Jones said.

A chief reason for the drop in efficiency was due to Thomasson potato chips produced by the Mansfield business were wavy, compared to the non-wavy chips packaged under the Jones’ label.

“With Thomasson’s, we were able to run fewer and fewer machines, and that slowed us down,” Jones said. “With some of our other products we were able to run at a lot higher volume, but it essentially became a separate production due to the different cut (of potato).”

The Thomasson brand began in Elyria during the Great Depression when founder Oralie Thomasson lost his job as a streetcar motorman when the lines closed in 1931. He learned how to make a new snack, potato chips, while visiting relatives in Tucson, Ariz., that same year.

When Thomasson returned to Elyria, he began production of the hand-cut chips in his garage on West Avenue.

In an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram in 1974, William E. Thomasson Jr., the last family member to head the firm until he sold it to Jones, said, “Granddad had an old hog kettle encased in concrete. He heated the grease in it over a furnace until it reached 350 degrees.”

Thomasson said his grandfather sold the potato chips door-to-door during the Great Depression for a nickel a bag.

In 1984, when the firm was located on Kipling Street, it employed more than 20 people and had four trucks that delivered the popular chips throughout Northeast Ohio.

The Jones company sparked a bit of a flap in 2005, when officials decided to switch from soybean oil to cottonseed oil to produce the Thomasson brand, and longtime fans of the chip noticed a difference in the  taste. At the time, Jones said the decision to switch cooking oils was made due to the brand’s smaller share of sales, coupled with an effort to eliminate trans fats present in the soybean oil but absent in cottonseed oil.

Despite being a small player in a business whose ranks include multinational corporations such as Frito-Lay, Jones Potato Chip Co. had doubled its production over the past four years.

“My dad (Frederick W. Jones) began the company in 1945,” Jones said. “We’ve been around for a while, and we’re still here fighting.”

The company’s 65th year in business in 2010 saw it process about 212 semi-truck loads totaling 10.5 million pounds of potatoes. In 2006, Jones processed about 100 truckloads of potatoes. The 2010 output equaled about 2.6 million pounds of finished products, Jones said.

The company expects to do $7 million to $8 million in sales in 2011, according to Jones.

In 2009, the company undertook a $3 million expansion that saw it move into a new production facility about a mile north of its former Mansfield plant.

Jones said that while the company’s potato chips and other snacks will continue to be marketed to grocers, convenience stores, schools, concession stands and other outlets throughout northern and north-  central Ohio, the company is looking to go nationwide with snacks such as its potato sticks.

“They’re going into Save-A-Lot stores, of which there are about 1,250 nationwide,” Jones said.

The firm also will begin to produce snacks that will be marketed by larger companies under the bigger firms’ names. Jones declined to identify any of those companies.

“We’re doing this for regional companies in a volume that isn’t large enough for them to produce themselves,” he said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.