I’m working on a new documentary for CPTV called “Made in CT” that features innovative manufacturing companies in the state. Everybody knows we have Pratt & Whitney, which has spawned dozens of supply chain manufacturers in the aerospace industry. But very few people had any idea Connecticut is also home to some innovative companies in the food industry that have recently revamped their recipes to become healthier and more environmentally-conscious.
Let’s start with Severance Foods, the largest tortilla chip-maker in New England, based in Hartford. The company produces 40-thousand pounds of chips a day. And these aren’t your garden-variety chips: They are the multi-grain, organic, and now GMO-free creations that land on the top shelf of your specialty food store. Despite the increase in cost to source non-GMO corn, Severance owners decided to take the plunge. As Brand Manager Rick Stevens explains, “The industry goes where the consumer wants us.”
But the fact remains, Severance Foods has been blazing a trail in the tortilla chip industry for the past 30 years. Founded in 1984 by three employees of the food and beverage distributor Heublein, which decided to move its entire operation to California after it was acquired by RJ Reynolds, Severance Foods’ seed money came from the severance checks of Dick Stevens, John Grikis, and Rich Dana. Their main account for Heublein at the time was Ortega, the Mexican food giant. As Grikis tells the story, “ we got very familiar with the process of making tortillas and tortilla chips and were also privy to some marketing information that mentioned that Mexican cuisine was going to hit the Northeastern United States like a tidal wave.”
So they bought a tortilla-making machine from Ortega with the severance money and started hawking their tortillas and chips at area restaurants and schools. Their hunch paid off big-time: They shifted to snack foods, scored some contracts with major companies, and now make custom chips sold under 20 different labels. Lief Dana, son of founder Rich who passed away in the 90s, says what makes his company so unique is that it can follow the trends of the time, “ We can come up with an idea and try it tomorrow.” Right now, kale chips are hot. So are siracha and sweet potato. Dana says they’re now experimenting with a trail mix chip that has a combo of grains and fruit. But the “Severance stand-by” is the multi-grain chip, without a doubt. (A little side note: The crew and I LOVED the blue sesame chips. Kale…not so much.)
We also had the pleasure of indulging in Ola! Granola for this segment. Again, another Connecticut home grown company that’s chosen the healthy route: Ola’s ingredients are gluten-free, GMO-free, kosher, and organic.
Company founder Dina Houser quit her day job and launched Ola! in 2009 using her mother’s tried and true recipe, which she now makes by hand in her Norwalk-based industrial kitchen. She started selling her original flavors (Vanilla Almond and Cranberry Orange Pecan) at local farmers’ markets and specialty food stores. She’s added two new flavors to her repertoire (Nut-free Vanilla and Chocolate Banana Chip) and now half a dozen major grocery chains across the country carry Ola! Granola.
Both Ola! Granola and Severance Foods use quality ingredients which definitely takes a hit on the bottom line. But this decision to put health and the environment first is paying off. These companies will be expanding in the year ahead, hiring new employees. Severance Foods is scouting larger facilities in the neighborhood so it can bump up its production- despite the fact that it’s already pumping out tortilla chips around the clock 5 days a week.
Be sure to watch this new documentary for CPTV coming Fall 2014.
Christina DeFranco, Environmental Journalist | CT Documentary and Video Producer