Pa. snack maker gets charged up for playoff blitz

Posted: January 4, 2014 - 1:07pm


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jeremiah Thomas watched the final minutes of Sunday's Eagles-Cowboys game with two thoughts only a Herr's sales manager could have:

Go Birds! and I gotta bring more potato chips into the sales depot.

That's because nothing causes the kind of demand surge for the company's salty snacks like an Eagles playoff game. And Sunday's big win over Dallas, clinching the team's first postseason berth since the 2010 season, meant that everyone on the front lines at Herr's, including guys like Thomas, would have just six days to move tons more chips, tortillas, and popcorn for Saturday's playoff parties.

It would be tricky, given that the win came just a few days before New Year's Day, when Herr's Chester County factory and 1,500 workers would be idle. And on Thursday, the company was bracing for an overnight snowstorm that would clear chips off the grocery shelves that much faster — and potentially block the way to restocking them Friday morning.

But choking did not appear to be an option.

Interviews with company officials and a Thursday tour of the Herr Foods plant revealed a family-owned business charged up for the blitz.

"There's excitement in the air for us Eagles fans," said procurement manager Gene Herr, who taste-tested freshly fried potato chips inside the factory, whose hours had been extended to midnight to meet demand.

He confessed to nervously monitoring a nearby computer screen for weather flashes. But with a low-key intensity, he added, "There's going to be no problem getting product to the customer."

Company president Ed Herr suggested this sort of clutch situation was just what they lived for at Herr's.

"We can feed the frenzy," he said of the Nottingham Township company's quick-stepping to meet the demand an Eagles playoff game brings. No other event, not even early warm barbecue weather, compares.

"The Eagles are our biggest driver of surges," Ed Herr said. "There's no question about it."

The team's win meant sales managers got on the horn with retailers and the commissioned Herr's drivers who take orders from supermarkets, convenience stores, and others.

Could we have extra space for bigger displays, Herr's would ask. Regional warehouse managers at the company's 21 smaller depots would check supply against the size of new orders coming in. The factory would boost production accordingly.

Drivers like Jeff Ewald built extra displays at stores Thursday, including several at the Concordville Acme. He would return to restock even through snow, if need be.

"Right now, we're in a kind of a perfect storm" for sales, said Thomas, Ewald's supervisor, who oversees 37 routes, 54 employees and 2,000 retail outlets served by Herr's in Delaware County; New Castle County, Del.; and parts of Chester County.

The snow, the Eagles game, and a 2-for-$5 promotion that began a week earlier on 101/2-ounce bags of chips all would be good for sales, he said.

Ed Herr is not at all baffled by the phenomenon that brings out Philadelphians' salty tooth when the Eagles fly into the playoffs. He, too, is a huge Iggles fan - he'll be hosting a playoff party at home for Saturday night's matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

The company founded by his late father has become so central to the oh-so-elusive playoff chase in Philadelphia that demand during local postseason games outpaces even a non-Eagles Super Bowl.

"There's something that happens when there's a possibility of the Eagles getting into the playoffs themselves," Ed Herr said. "Everyone's trying to figure out, 'Where's the party, and who's bringing what?' "

Herr's delivers its foil-wrapped snacks directly to stores in 11 Mid-Atlantic states, and supplies Walmart and Target stores through third-party distributors.

But 60 percent of its annual revenue comes from the Philadelphia area. Which is why, when opportunity knocks, the company is ready.

Herr's produces 95 percent of its snacks at a large campus off Route 1 near the Maryland border, where even through Thursday's bitter cold, one could smell corn tortillas and popcorn in the air outside.

A rail spur behind the factory brings vegetable oil and corn to the plant. A massive hydraulic lift also hoists an entire tractor-trailer full of potatoes — with the cab still attached — into the air so that it dangles at a 45-degree angle. The trailer hatch opens, and tons of potatoes flow into a fast-moving conveyor leading right into the plant.

Within four minutes of leaving the truck, a potato is cleaned, peeled, sliced, fried, and ready to be bagged and stuffed into boxes, said spokeswoman Jennifer Arrigo. They are processed at a rate of 14,000 pounds an hour - it takes four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of chips.

Boxes are shipped out in tractor-trailers, which transport the goods to mini-warehouse/depots, where drivers and sales representatives load up smaller trucks and haul boxes to grocers and delis.

One help this week is the extra inventory built up before New Year's — an annual precaution for snow. That gave Herr's wiggle room to stock early in the week, before again regrouping after New Year's, Ed Herr said.

The real magic, though, is a sales staff that pounces with the Eagles.

"Our sales guys, they're sports enthusiasts," Ed Herr said. "This is like their sweet spot."