Crisps have been party and snack favourites for decades and one Nelson business has shaken up the big players in the snack food market – Proper Crisps make just that, proper crisps, not crinkle cut crisps with fake tasting flavourings or crisps made from reconstituted potato and formed into identically shaped snacks in a can.
At Proper Crisps they only use natural ingredients, their flavourings aren’t a list of ‘e’ numbers and artificial additives, just real Marlborough garlic with smoked, sweet paprika or maybe Marlborough sea salt with pure cider vinegar and it goes without saying they use natural fresh, whole potatoes too.
The Proper Crisps story started ten years ago when English couple Stuart & Kathryn Franklin decided New Zealand was being short-changed in the crisp market, they set up a fledgling business in a small food factory at Upper Moutere and Kiwis quickly fell in love with this hand crafted product, so much so they soon outgrew the premises.
However for a couple who had poured all of their resources into starting a small business the success was a double edged sword, the business simply got too big too quickly for them so in 2011 they sold Proper Crisps to Mina Wilke-Smith and Ned Smith who became the Head Potatoes and they have developed the business into the fastest growing snack food business in New Zealand, but most importantly it is a family established and owned business based right here in Nelson.
Having had a very successful food business in the United States that was based on similar philosophies Mina and Ned quickly saw the potential in this crisp producer.
Mina’s background was owning businesses that utilised her design skills in landscaping, interior design and clothing design with her marketing skills being a significant factor in the success of her businesses.
She was born in South Africa to an English father and French mother so her love of food is driven by the European influences, her family spent many summers in the south of France before she moved to San Diego in 1979, eventually owning an art gallery in Solana Beach.
Mina had been introduced to interesting foods as a child and at an early age developed a love for food, travel and exploring foods that are different; she is also very health conscious and while Proper Crisps is a snack food she is passionate about making sure the product is absolutely natural.
Ned say “she is a wonderful cook, we have fun in the kitchen and she is sensitive to doing everything properly, she loves to walk in to a kitchen and make something from what she finds”.
For Mina it is about being true to your own upbringing, “make things you love and share the love”.
Ned is a trained chef who started in the food business as a kid washing floors in a neighbours restaurant, “from that day I learned everything it took to become a chef, I lived in the north west suburbs of Chicago and worked my way through the various cooking sections in the kitchen to become a chef.”
He eventually moved to California where he couldn’t get a job in the type of restaurant his skills were suited to “I didn’t want to work in a burger business so ended up in a bakery where I used my pastry chef’s skills to help them develop a commercial cheesecake business.”
“I got to meet lots of restaurant owners and knew what they wanted, we developed cakes specifically for some restaurants.”
In about 1972 he moved to work for at a bakery down the road before setting up his own business, initially making cheesecakes at home, “I even used the baby bath as a big mixing bowl because we didn’t have enough money to just go and buy the things we needed”.
“In about 1974 we added carrot cake to our product range and it became an important product in my future, under the brand Nemo’s we ended up selling it along with chocolate cake and banana cake to about 20,000 outlets across the US just two years after we started.
“We went from two employees to about 150 based on the philosophy of ‘homemade away from home’ and we cracked every egg by hand, it was all about a cottage industry making a great product” and that is what I see Ned and Mina doing at Proper Crisps.
Mina joined the business in 1993 and by 1999 they had 400 employees and were producing 426 individual recipes, “it just got too big and I wasn’t being involved in the intimate production of the products” says Ned,
While Nemo’s had an average staff tenure of about 25 years (he owned it for 30 years) Ned says if you get too big you lose something, “I like a flat organisation structure where as a group we are all equals, staff are fully engaged and love working here, we value 100% of every individual who works for us”.
When Ned sold Nemo’s Mina closed her gallery and they traveled the world for a couple of years before buying a home in Nelson in 2010.
Ned told me that when they sold the business they came here for a lifestyle shift, they both have a passion for active sports and Nelson was perfect for that; he also said they had a look at their longer term investment strategy and decided to move some of their money away from American dollar investments, they were looking for investment opportunities rather than buying a business to run.
They discovered Proper Crisps and later found out the business was on the market and were eventually tempted into having a look at the business “because I am a foodie, not because we wanted to buy it and we found a nice little setup in Upper Moutere, everything was in one room and they managed to produce about 100 boxes a day working two days a week, in their first year they used about eight tonne of potatoes, we use that many a day now.”
Stuart and Kathryn set out to make the best crisp on the planet, a product others might be able to equal but can’t beat, “we thought they had the perfect product then after we bought the business and while we were still travelling to and from America they ran it as our partners for six months before they moved back to the UK to be closer to family.”
Both Ned and Mina are very quick to acknowledge their staff and as Nelson Mail photographer Martin de Ruyter and I were shown around the factory by Ned’s son, Eddie, we were introduced to everyone by first name and every person we met had a big smile for us and seems very happy to be part of the Proper Crisps family.
“Troy has been with the business since it started in Upper Moutere” says Mina “building a company is like making a family of its own, we want to create an environment where we all work hard, have fun and we all make money, no one is clock watching, if it means staying an extra 15 minutes to complete a job they will, and be happy to do it because they feel they are part of the business.”
So what drives people like Mina and Ned? I think it is a passion to create something special, not just a great product but a fantastic business that acknowledges the people who help them create such a great product.
And then there is the goal of winning the number one spot in the premium snack category, “our goal is to deliver a quality product that belongs in the premium snack sector, we want to change choices people have, give them healthy snack choices.”
“Our crisps are 100% natural, they are gluten, dairy, GMO free and vegan friendly with no added MSG and made with love and sunshine, they can serve as fuel for your body and soul” say Mina.
As we were shown around we found out what drives the quality of the product, every potato is inspected by a person with any green spots or eyes being trimmed by hand before the potato goes through the slicer, the person in charge of frying each batch is so proud of what they do their name is printed on each pack beside the use by date – when the cook changes the name on the pack changes too.
Proper Crisps are the perfect snack food, handcrafted by people who love their jobs who are passionate about creating the perfect crisp every time and who are employed by a couple who have huge respect for every staff member.