By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff
FREEPORT, Maine — A hot mound of golden brown potato chips rests seductively on a baking sheet. With a deft flick of the wrist Scott Brodeur sprinkles on maple sugar. A hissing sound fills the air.
Is this a snack addict’s hallucination? Not at all. It’s just another day of production at Vintage Maine Kitchen, a small-batch potato chip company that turns Maine potatoes, Maine sea salt and Maine maple syrup into farm-to-pouch gold.
“We wanted food coming from a single source,” co-owner Brodeur, a burly man in a Red Sox cap, said. “We produce chips the old-fashioned way.”
Inside a nondescript storefront on Route 1, Brodeur grabs fistfulls of sliced potatoes grown nearby and drops them into a bubbling vat of sunflower oil. He separates the floating spuds with tongs. Moments later they transform into chips.
“Some of the potatoes we get from Bell Farms really taste like butter,” his wife and business partner, Kelly Brodeur, said. “So we try to keep that flavor in the chip.”
Generations of Mainers grew up on Humpty Dumpty Potato Chips, founded in South Portland in the ’40s. For this couple, who moved here from Massachusetts in 2007, it was Royal Feast, a now-defunct Methuen chip maker that was an early favorite.
Once settled in Freeport and after giving birth to their daughter Merrill, “we wanted to bring back the tradition of a family chipper,” Kelly Brodeur said.
Vintage Maine Kitchen is the latest small food company to find success by doing it their way. Self-taught, self-motivated and self-fulfilled, these startups are popping up all across Maine.
With a degree from Johnson and Wales University, Kelly Brodeur worked in a string of restaurants from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Galway, Ireland. She has always loved potatoes. Her husband, who has cooked in his share of hotels and bars, does too. Before launching Vintage Maine Kitchen last summer, Kelly Brodeur tried different cooking methods with a Dutch oven at home.
“It came down to using the right potato,” she said, standing over sacks of spuds grown in Lewiston, Auburn and neighboring Durham. Turns out Bell Farms’ Norwis and Keuka Gold are the winners.
So far the company has two flavors: original and the sweet and savory Maine maple. “Mainers love maple,” Scott Brodeur, who has yet to see another maple chip made here, said.
Unlike Cape Cod Potato Chips’ thick kettle-style, Vintage Maine Kitchen chips are thin and crisp. Starting with a local potato, few ingredients follow: sunflower oil and salt, or maple sugar for Maine maple. “Our chips are as healthy as you can get. It’s not processed food,” she said. “It’s as simple as it gets.”
How did the couple know reclaiming the potato chip would work?
“From the look on the faces of customers after they try it,” Scott Brodeur, who worked for years at L.L. Bean in distribution and manufacturing, said.
So far the chips are sold in Freeport shops and specialty food stores, including Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Portland and Scarborough. They can be found a far north as Center Coffee House in Dover-Foxcroft and as far south as The Noshery in Amesbury, Massachusetts. They also ship all over the U.S.
“Business is doubling every month, and we can make about 120 cases a week with our current staffing,” Kelly Brodeur said. “We plan to double that again soon.”
They are sold in single-serving bags because they are “so addictive,” Scott Brodeur said, one of three people who bag each batch by hand.
For now, the couple is ramping up for the summer tourist season.
“We want these chips served by the side of every lobster roll,” Kelly Brodeur said. “It’s the perfect combination.”