Baltimore's only potato chip company has been bought by the owner of an Eastern Shore company that got its start in the mid-1980s by challenging the maker of Old Bay for its near monopoly of the steamed crab seasoning market.
Mrs. Ihrie's Potato Chips Inc., an East Baltimore business born out of tragedy nearly 70 years ago, was bought by Joseph L. Bernard, owner and president of Wye River Inc. on Kent Island.
Mr. Bernard, 38, declined to reveal the price other than to say, "It was in the millions of dollars."
He was not as shy about discussing his plans for the Smallwood Street company that, he said, has been "barely profitable" in recent years.
"We'll be pumping a lot of money into this plant," he said as he walked past a machine that washes and peels thousands of pounds of potatoes each day. "We're going to get new fryers. We're going to put on a second shift, hiring 10 to 20 new workers."
Mr. Bernard told Mrs. Ihrie's 85 employees yesterday that he has no plans to move the company out of Baltimore and that workers would keep their jobs. He said he would increase production and improve working conditions.
Mrs. Ihrie's supplies potato chips to Value Food, Farm Fresh, Super Pride, IGA, Eddie's and some Acme markets on the Eastern Shore, among regional markets. Its chips also are served at about half of the city's public schools and at the state Penitentiary.
The plant, which produces 18,000 to 20,000 pounds of chips a day, posted sales of about $8 million last year, Mr. Bernard said. Its market extends north into southern Pennsylvania and east to the Delmarva peninsula, but about half its business is in Baltimore.
Because of the high transportation costs involved in delivering such bulky items, Mr. Bernard said, he will look for opportunities in the region the company serves, rather than try to expand into new areas.
Although Mr. Bernard bought the company as a separate entity from his Wye River holdings, he said the Mrs. Ihrie's trucks also will carry Wye River's Silver Queen corn tortilla chips. "There could be some other snack item, too, but that is still secret," Mr. Bernard said. He said he plans to split his time evenly between the companies.
Since the introduction of its Wye River "original red" and "spicy black" seafood seasoning, the company has expanded into frozen microwave dinners and a line of soups. The company, which Mr. Bernard started in 1985, supplies restaurants with frozen crab cakes. Wye River had sales of $5 million last year.
Mrs. Ihrie's was started by Alice Ihrie in the early 1920s when her husband was hospitalized after the Koester's Bread truck he was driving collided with a fire truck.
"She started it in the basement of her home on Fulton Avenue," said Carolyn Garbo, who has worked at the plant for 33 years. "She had six children to support; she had to do something."
"Mrs. Ihrie would fry the chips, and the kids would use a horse and wagon to sell them around the city," Mrs. Garbo said.
Others at the plant say that Mrs. Ihrie started the business with less than 50 cents, the price of potatoes and a pound of lard. The company now uses vegetable oil.
Mrs. Ihrie's moved to its current site at the end of World War II, and the factory has grown from 10,000 square feet to about 45,000.
The family sold the business in the early 1960s. Mr. Bernard said that recently it has been owned by George Philipps, of Massachusetts "who buys companies . . . and resells them for a profit."