DETROIT (AP) -- From the yellow Better Made building sitting among a clutch of convenience stores, car lots and storefront churches comes an unexpected aroma familiar to decades of Detroiters: salt, hot grease and fried potatoes.
A family-owned enterprise that started in a garage next to a bar, today it is one of only two chip companies left in the city. This August it celebrates 70 years.
Along his office wall, Sam Cipriano, the son of one of the founders, has old potato chip canisters, representing some of the 20-some chipmakers that used to call Detroit home.
"As a kid I remember when this used to be the warehouse right here outside my door," says Cipriano, 60, sitting in his small office, crammed with old photos and bag designs.
"The potatoes used to come in sacks and they'd stack 'em all up along on the other side of that wall there and … I'd climb up there and everybody'd yell at me," he says.
In August 1930, friends Cross Moceri and Peter Cipriano formed Cross & Peters Co. on the east side of Detroit, where much of the automotive industry was established.
"Over here it was the Italian town and my father and (Moceri) were from the same town in Sicily and they moved the plant here to draw in the Italian community to work for them," says Cipriano, a company vice president.
The company settled on its current east side location near City Airport in the 1940s, with a farmer for a neighbor.
Today there's no sign of farmland. The east side of Detroit isn't thriving like it did during the auto boom; many of the buildings near the plant are run-down and some neighboring homes are boarded up. The people and their work have fled to the suburbs.
But Cipriano and Chris Moceri, a company vice president and grandnephew of Cross Moceri, say they never have considered taking their 150 jobs out of Detroit. They like the area and the community. They grew up here.
This is where Better Made has made a name for itself. About 75 percent of its business comes from sales in southeast Michigan.
"We have a nice brand following from customers. … People that have grown up with Better Made are loyal," Cipriano says.
But keeping a family business going can be tough, especially with competition from No. 1 chipmaker Frito Lay, which had about $12.6 billion in net sales last year. Frito Lay, a division of PepsiCo Inc., has more than half of all chip sales nationwide. In southeast Michigan, it has $29.4 million of the $42.1 million of supermarket potato chip sales. Better Made accounts for $7.3 million in sales.
"You have Frito Lay and then you have everyone else," says Dan Malovany, editor of Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery magazine.
Yet here, of the top five chip varieties, Better Made special and regular potato chips hold third- and fourth-place. Frito Lay holds the other three spots.
Moceri attributes the chip's local popularity to the product's freshness. Better Made uses Michigan potatoes during about nine months of the year, relying on potatoes from other parts of the country the rest of the time.
"Potatoes that we get today will be chips today. … Sometimes they come right from the ground," says Moceri, 45.
Most of the plant is automated. Once the potatoes -- about 200,000 pounds per day -- are washed and peeled, they come down the conveyor belt, past an inspector who plucks out the bad ones.
Sliced and cooked in cottonseed oil, the chips continue down the line, where inspectors eyeball them on their way up to get bagged. As Moceri walks by the line, he picks up a bad chip and tosses it aside.
"I try not to eat the chips, I really do, because if I eat one, I'll eat more than one," he says, laughing. The chips are made in the older part of the plant, with its red and yellow decor similar to that of a bag of Better Made chips.
Better Made's chip line consists of regular, barbecue, sour cream, sour cream and cheddar, salt and vinegar, no salt, wavy, and new this year, sweet barbecue.
It also sells pretzels, cheese corn, popcorn, cheese puffs, tortilla chips, party mix and carmel corn
Moceri says he hopes to see a few new products in the future and the company is looking to expand into northern Ohio.
"I think we're going to be more aggressive. … We'll see if the consumers want certain flavors," he says. "One of the problems is you can only manufacture certain products and do it right.
"Well, if we can't do it right, we're not going to do it all."
It can be a struggle to stay competitive. In the beginning, Better Made sold its chips in a public park and the bar next door. Today, it has to fight to get space.
Some retailers charge a fee, called a slotting allowance, in exchange for shelf space, says Grocery Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Lisa Allen. Allen says it can be unfair for smaller companies if the fee is too high for the companies to make a profit.
But Malovany says independent companies can survive, as long as they find their strengths and "don't try to compete in someone else's ball game."
Better Made's game is in convenience stores and corner groceries, where space is easier to come by, Cipriano says. Detroit's other chipmaker, Uncle Ray's, has a smaller distribution, selling its products mainly in local convenience stores.
"Yes they are competing against Frito Lay, but then they're providing more of an alternative for the retailer and the consumer," Malovany says. "People want choice out there."
According to the Snack Food Association, 15 percent of its 95 U.S. members are family-owned businesses. And Frito Lay says it takes local competition seriously.
"Regional competition is very tough. There's a lot of brand loyalty to the hometown team," spokeswoman Lynn Markley says. "There are many, many regional snack companies that compete against us quite well."
For the 70th anniversary, Better Made will dress up its chips with a special bag. Otherwise, Cipriano's and Moceri's plans for the business will stay the same -- slow, steady growth in a field they know well.
"So many family owned businesses, they give up," Cipriano says. "We've got third-generation in here."
On the Net: Better Made, http://www.bmchips.com/
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