West Virginia Potato Chip Company is making a comeback. Here’s how.
Written by Shay Maunz
Imagine popping open a bag of Mister Bee Potato Chips: the white bag with a blue banner up top, the bee wearing a satisfied smile and tipping his hat. Once you reach inside, the chips themselves have a distinct texture—they’re a little lighter than your average potato chip, and sliced maybe just a tad thicker. The crunch is diff erent too, softer than what you get with the big name potato chips. In a good way. And if you’re from certain parts of West Virginia, those Mister Bee chips probably taste a little bit like home.
The Parkersburg-based West Virginia Potato Chip Company was founded in 1951 and has long been the only potato chip manufacturer in the state. For years its slogan was “200 miles fresher,” to set it apart from its rivals in Ohio and beyond. But for the last five years or so, the company has stood on uncertain ground. Sales began to dip. It stopped distributing in some markets. And in 2011, after years of lagging sales, the company filed for bankruptcy and stopped production of its flagship product, Mister Bee Potato Chips.
By the next spring they’d started selling potato chips again, but the company still had a lot of problems. The equipment was old and finicky, and there wasn’t a lot money around for things like marketing. Plus, in 2012 a fire broke out in a deep fryer and production had to be moved to Ohio for a spell while the company renovated the plant. Even with the protection they received after filing for bankruptcy, the owners seemed unable to make Mister Bee thrive again. “I think the company just needed a fresh perspective and a big cash infusion,” says Greg Reed. “There hadn’t been a lot of reinvestment in this company for decades.”
In life, as in this article, that’s where Reed comes in. He’s been the company’s new president since September, when he and a few business partners bought into the company. They’re hoping to be the infusion of cash and energy Mister Bee needs. And in some ways, just having new people interested in Mister Bee is huge. It’s a company that has flagged for years, but here are successful business people—Reed, for example, has thrived in the oil and gas business—investing in it. And Reed stresses that even though he’s a proud West Virginian who would love to help one of the state’s legacy companies survive, his interest in Mister Bee is by no means philanthropic. “We saw an opportunity,” he says. “We looked at the margins in this industry and liked what we saw.”
Already Reed and his partners are talking about ways they can expand the company once they’ve stabilized it enough to support such growth. A larger distribution area? New products? Maybe. Reed says that’s all a long way off . First, they have to make sure the core business is as strong as possible. And Reed is quick to say they wouldn’t dare fiddle with the recipe for Mister Bee Potato Chips. They will always taste the way you remember, only maybe a little better, as new and better machinery means higher quality and more consistency between batches. “We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel with our existing products,” Reed says. “People love those.”
If they ever were to screw up the recipe, Reed says he’d hear about it fast. “People aren’t shy about letting us know they’re unhappy with something, or if they have suggestions,” he says. It’s a reflection of the company’s smalltown, local vibe. “If you pick up a bag of Lay’s and you taste something you don’t like, you’re not going to turn over the bag and dial the 800 number and wait through the prompts to tell someone,” he says. “But it is really easy to call us or message us on Facebook or stop by the office, and people stop by here all the time. Folks just really care about these potato chips.”
Mister Bee’s Path Back to Prosperity
Most of Mister Bee’s equipment hasn’t been upgraded in ages and has caused workers headaches for years. Reed says he’s already gotten positive feedback from customers since they bought a new machine to apply salt last month.
Make investments—in the community.
Practically everyone who grew up in Parkersburg during Mister Bee’s more prosperous era has memories of touring the factory with a school group and leaving with a bag of chips and some insider knowledge about where their snacks come from. They saw the logo in advertisements on the field at football games, in their high school yearbooks, and on the local news channel. “We’d like to get back to that,” Reed says. “I want these people to know that if they support us we’re going to support them too.”
Start from scratch.
“I almost look at us as a start-up,” Reed says. Sure, the company has the benefit of a 60-year legacy and name recognition in the area, but it’s also small and quick. Kind of like—well, like a bee. “We’re lean, we don’t have the human capital that a lot of companies have. I think that will allow us to pivot faster and be more reactive to what the customer wants and needs.”