The first batch of chips was so bad that the people who sampled them “couldn’t throw them away fast enough,” says Michael Wimberley with a smile.
Wimberley is a community activist who is the mastermind behind the now-perfected chips made in the heart of the city at the Friends of Detroit & Tri-County headquarters.
The chips saga began when Wimberley’s mother, Lillie, founded Friends as a soup kitchen and outreach center for the surrounding neighborhood in 1994, then moved from the original small location after buying a former meat-packing facility on East Forest Avenue in 2002.
Wimberley decided to take advantage of empty lots near the building. He cleaned them up and planted potatoes, initially planning to market those they couldn’t use at the soup kitchen, but quickly discovered that it was economically unfeasible and wouldn’t make a sustainable business.
So, without even having a recipe, he and some of the other staff members starting experimenting with potato chips.
Wimberley began to try a lot of cooking styles and different varieties of potato. “We tried to lie that they weren’t that bad,” he says.
But when they were offered to the people who came to the center, they got what he calls “terrible feedback.” Undeterred, he pledged: “We are going to make this work.”
They changed the oil; they changed the spices, determined to come up with a successful product.
Ultimately, Wimberley enrolled in a 10-week program at FoodLab Detroit, and when he graduated in June of 2014, his chips, offered at the graduation ceremony along with the products of the other students, attracted Dave Kirby, the proprietor of Parker Street Market.
“He tasted the chips and became our first customer when he ordered 20 bags,” Wimberley says.
It would get better. Much better.
When he took the bags of chips to a Hantz Farms event, he was advised to join the Specialty Foods Association. Not long after he did, Specialty Foods Magazine ran a story about the fledgling business. It caught the eye of a style editor of O magazine, Kelley Carter, a former Detroiter.
The product didn’t make it into Oprah’s magazine, but Wimberley credits Carter for suggesting that he add canisters as well as bags as containers for the chips.
The story also attracted a Queens, N.Y., businessman, Eric Kim, who asked if Wimberley would do a private label. The answer was yes, and if you happen to be in Queens, the chips are marketed under the Chameleon label.
Locally, the chips are available at locations such as Avalon International Breads, Mudgie’s Deli, 8 Degrees Plato, Green Garage, and, of course, Parker Street Market.
Friends chip varieties have increased to include sea salt, lemon pepper, onion celery, barbecue, and chipotle. They are made with Burbank potatoes, because “the baseball size makes the best potato chip,” says Wimberley.
If those original guinea pigs who threw away the first batch of chips could try them now, they’d come to a different conclusion.
For more information, visit friendsofdetroit.org, then click on the Detroit Friends Potato Chips tab.