Five years ago, Brian Thornton had a food truck and a few bagfuls of potato chips. Now, that same truck merely serves as the vessel for what has become his full-time vocation and passion. When asked where he sees his business in another five years, the founder of Oh! Burgers (and now the insanely popular Oh! Chips) says the sky’s the limit. “We’re going to have a giant cruise ship that makes potato chips. Ooh! And a blimp!”
Just something to go with the burgers. That’s how it started.
In 2012, Thornton was in his first summer as a food truck chef with big dreams, and out of necessity, he’d soon become an on-site potato fryer, too. Most days, he’d be up with the sun, prepping burgers, and at the end of his work day, pulling night shifts to fry chips for the next day. Those chips caught on like wildfire, and his crisp business exploded, eclipsing the food truck by spades.
Now, Thornton finds himself at the helm of a potato chip factory with a food truck problem.
His position has expanded to include more titles than can be listed, but he’s no longer a one-pop shop. He shares that responsibility (and a whole lot of chips) with his right-hand Mike “MikeGyver” Lauletta, the city’s food truck do-it-all ace—who, in addition to his prowess as a machinist, brings his own culinary and small business background to the operation. That’s not including everything else—from sales to recipe design to payroll—which he helps delegate to Oh! Chips staff (yep, staff), which currently sits at nine employees.
Three years ago, the two took the plunge into renting a large-scale processing facility in Franklinton, one that has now matured into a neighborhood fixture. It’s part production facility, part storage—part prep kitchen, part headquarters. It needed a lot of work when he moved in, but hey, all those things used to take place on one truck.
As with most things, Thornton dove in head first, building out the space in 6-7 months. He did it with little outside help, adding, “everything we could legally do ourselves, we did.”
And all this two weeks before his son was born.
How did he get all this done? Some hidden construction or fabrication experience we don’t know about? He gleefully shakes his head.
“No … YouTube!”
Upon entering the building, one passes a huge walk-in cooler, and then kitchen accoutrements, onto a production floor with three large capacity fryers, each dedicated to a different type of oil and product (peanut oil and gluten are segregated.) A massive ventilation hood is fixed above the fryers, shelves of packaged and bulk products stand proudly in rows, and to one side is a tall machine with huge googly eyes glued to the front, referred to as the floor manager. It’s a bagging and weighing machine. Chips go in the top, and the machine has a little belt that sends them down a series of chutes, into bags. Next to that is a little conveyor that quickly inflates and heat seals their bags. These two items are key to the growth and rebranding that Oh! Chips is currently undertaking.
They used to do bagging with a single small food scale and handheld heat sealer. Using the same amount of time and people that it once took to crank out 2,000 bags of chips, the company can now make 30,000.
Asked to explain the latest move, Thornton is matter-of-fact.
“It was either sink or swim,” he said. “We had to get new packaging, or there was not really much of an expansion happening. Our sales have doubled. It was instantaneous. Daily Growler was getting a case a month, or month and a half. [Now, they’re getting a] case a week.”
The different flavors of chips used to be sold in coffee bags, only in two -unce portions. Now, the five flavors of chips are all sold in personal size servings, as well as shareable nine-ounce bags.
But Thornton is supplying more than end-of-the-line consumers with his product.
If you are a Columbus restaurant connoisseur, you have almost certainly sampled his wares: Korean barbeque chips for Ajumama; tortilla chips for Dos Hermanos; wonton chips for Hai Poke; barbeque chips for The Hill’s Market deli … the list goes on, and the sales continue to rise.
Which just creates a good, new kind of stress for the former solo venture. And a need for sharper strategy.
“We’ve got Heinen’s coming at the end of the month, which is 14-17 stores. University hospitals,” Thornton said, slightly bewildered at times by the task in front of them. “At the end of this month, our sales are gonna hockey stick. We’re running on all cylinders right now, and we’re doing really really well. I just don’t know what that looks like, so I don’t wanna go out and try to get the 38 Giant Eagle stores in Columbus right now. Add all those things together and we’ve sunk our ship by being too aggressive.”
Careful and cautiously optimistic—that’s the way to describe Oh! Chips, who believe in their product enough to see a national trajectory—but are savvy enough to see where the wheels could easily fall off. Currently, they’re pushing the product beyond Columbus incrementally, seeing sales from places like California, Georgia, and Washington D.C through their website.
“I would love to be national, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re still learning about distribution and brokerages and all that stuff. So there’s a whole bunch of new things, coming from a restaurant background … we’re learning a lot, it’s really interesting. We should probably graph it, but it’s hard to get data, because our sales are just going up and up and up.”
That rapid expansion has changed wholesale the culture of his once-modest venture. The food truck that started it all is still operational (you can catch them at Land-Grant Wednesdays and Saturdays), but it mostly serves as a marketing tool for the chip-show. It’s hard telling as it gets older whether they’ll put more money into it; it could end up being Thornton’s office, he said.
Which would signal a true turning point in the business. After all, one of the only drawbacks of becoming a full-time potato magnate is losing a little touch with the simple root of the venture. At the heart of Thornton’s business is a love of serving people good food, which he finds himself doing less and less as his responsibilities shift.
“I do miss it,” he said. “But the cool thing is, in the position I’m in now, I do a lot of samplings. I [get to] talk to customers. I did the Barn Bash at Franklin Park Conservatory. Up to about 50 percent of the people already knew who we were. And the people who didn’t already know who we were were grabbing their friend’s arms and pulling them over like ‘Try these f**kin’ chips!’”
But back to the future: Thornton holds onto his original dream of owning a restaurant some day, but for now, he’s focused on bolstering the company’s place in Franklinton, and growing visibility for the Columbus business and culinary community.
And making a chip-ton in the process.
Oh! Chips are available at nearly 50 locations across Ohio. Check out where to buy them near you, and track the food truck at oh-chips.com. •