It’s mid-afternoon in Grandview. A grey food truck dozes outside a brewery, its generator putt-putting gently above the rear bumper. A grill sizzles and the air is punctuated by bright, intermittent singing. Inside the truck, Brian Thornton is doing what he does best: jammin’, creating great food, and being his own boss.
Oh, and making the best damn potato chips in the land.
A Hilliard native, Thornton attended the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, before returning to his native city to serve some time in the restaurant trenches. After honing his craft in Columbus brick-and-mortars like Hyde Park and The Refectory, Thornton struck out on his own to create the Oh! Burgers food truck, where he sells a multitude of creatively-topped mini burgers. Years behind a line in a kitchen have their way of grizzling most people, and turning their bright, starry eyes into coal in their sockets. Not Thornton. He keeps his cool under heat and pressure, and he’s taking his positive attitude into the big leagues when he opens a potato chip factory this fall in the heart of downtown.
From the start, he made his own chips from scratch to accompany the burgers he was serving, but pretty soon, the crunchy side dish stole the spotlight.
“I was selling out,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with demand, so I purchased a larger fryer and talked Food Fort into letting me run it in their kitchen. Laura Lee (owner of Korean street food truck Ajumama) really pushed me to start making kettle chips. That’s where my first specialty chips came from…they were Korean barbeque.”
Thornton’s strengths lie in his creative recipes and his tie-ins with other local businesses: spent grain chips from North High Brewing, taking grains from the brewing process and grinding them up in a coffee grinder to use for seasoning; tomato basil chips from Blue Olive food truck; and barbeque chips for Kenny’s Meat Wagon.
Thornton tries to stay crisp by doing specialty chips for himself, like garlic parmesan and cinnamon sweet potato chips. Once the plant fires up this fall, there are plans for “Black Bag” chips, seasonal flavors produced for a few month run, akin to seasonal beers from craft brewers.
The OH! Chips facility will be a full-scale manufacturing and distribution center for his crunchy creations, and will initially employ about four people, but that may change quickly.
As for distribution, the aim is small retail markets like Hills and Weiland’s, or co-ops like those in Clintonville and Bexley. The cost of shelf space at the chain supermarkets coupled with the local-centric attitude of the clientele at the small shops made it an easy decision, Thornton said.
“We want to stay out of the big grocery stores. The competition is fierce in potato chips. I’m not going into an easy market. I figure if I can get people to try them at restaurants first, and off the food truck, that’s how we’re going to build a solid brand.”
Thornton is poised at the beginning of a project that could eventually evolve into a big facility. Oaks from tiny acorns grow, and soon, Columbus will have its very own potato chip factory.
For more, visit www.facebook.com/OHChips, or follow @OH_Chips on Twitter.