To call Harvest Pride a Hardin County family business might be an understatement. The tortilla chips which are showing up on store shelves throughout the area are products of the Denny Hensel family. The corn is raised by Denny and sent to a manufacturing facility he owns in Ada. After processing, the corn is pounded and formed into chips by five members of the family and delivered in their family mini-vans and cars to stores in three counties. “It’s a lot of hard work,” said his daughter, Dawn Steiner.
But customers have begun asking for the Harvest Pride chips and the company’s future looks rosy. The area deliveries may be just the beginning. Denny said he began growing food-grade corn and cleaning it to be made into chips in 1987.
The corn is higher grade than a standard field corn and comes in a variety of colors, he explained.
Hensel planted about 900 of his 1,500 acres of farmland into white, yellow, blue and red corn. At first, he hauled it to the Seyfert factory in Indiana, where owner Joe Seyfert showed him his operation. Back then, said Hensel, Seyfert didn’t make a tortilla chip, but did produce a small, thicker corn chip. Denny began hauling his Hardin County corn to other chip producers, often spending four days a week on the road, taking him as far as Grand Rapids, Mich., to Washington, D.C.The idea of using his own corn to make the chips was never far from his mind after seeing how Seyfert’s system operated, he said. He met with his family and asked them to buy into the idea of producing tortilla chips locally.
His two daughters and their husbands each brought special talents to his proposed company. Denise Grappy is a pharmacist, he said, and has an understanding of chemistry helps her oversee the quality of the product. Dawn graduated with a degree in communications and uses her skills with Denise in marketing. Denise’s husband, Josh Grappy, is handy with computers and agreed to not only keep track of the company’s inventory, but design the packaging for the finished product. And Jared Steiner, Dawn’s husband, handles the mechanical needs of the equipment. “Everyone was on board from the get-go,” said Denny. “I wouldn’t have tried to tackle it without them.”
His next stop was at the Hardin County Chamber and Business Alliance, where Hensel said he found his strongest supporter in Economic Development Director John Hohn. “John was instrumental from the beginning,” said Denny. “He is our biggest cheerleader.” Hohn made the connection with the village of Ada and set things in motion to build the new facility in the town’s industrial park. It was important to Hensel to keep as much of the business for the building local, including financing it through Ag Credit.
In late summer, the first bags of Harvest Pride rolled off the production line with the entire Hensel family involved. “We are all playing a part,” said Denise. The colored corn is cooked for 14 hours in a vat filled with water and lime to get the skin off. It then goes through the washing system before it is ground into a pulp. “It looks something like cookie dough,” Denny said. The corn masa, as the pulp is called, goes through a sheeter, where two 10-inch rollers flatten it and a rotating die cuts the masa into chips. Harvest Pride can produce triangular or round chips, but at the present time is selling only the triangular style. The chips then go through an oven where they are baked at 600 degrees. After they cool on racks, the chips are fried, seasoned and bagged, ready to go to the customers.
But first, Dawn tags the Harvest Pride bags with an expiration date. The first place the tortilla chips were offered to the public was at the Mount Victory Plaza Inn in July, said Denise. The 302 Carryout in Ada followed and now, customers in Hardin, Hancock and Allen counties are buying the chips made at the Ada factory. Harvest Pride’s reputation has grown in a short time. Currently there are 14 stores selling the chips. “But that changes daily,” said Dawn.
The company is making its chips available to the Fresh Encounter stores, such as Community Markets and Chief, and the family is in discussion with Kroger. There are plans to expand the operation and new equipment is already being installed to make the tortilla chips faster and better. There also are plans to sell the white chips to area restaurants and the uncooked chips for Mexican restaurants to prepare on site. The business has grown to the point to where Denny has hired a distributor for his chips. The days of delivering the chips in their family vehicles may be numbered. The family is also working on a newly designed bag, which will be more durable and keep the product fresher longer. The bags will have the new Farm-to-Table logo on the side. The logo was designed for the Alliance especially to promote the Harvest Pride chips, said Denise.
Denny said he is happy with the success the company has seen in such a short time and often thinks back on the day in 1987 when he visited the Seyfert factory for the first time. “That was when the wheels started turning,” he said.
The public response to the blue corn, guacamole, ranch, nacho cheese and the new chili lime chips has been very positive.
Not only do customers ask for them and tell the family how much they enjoy them, but the proof is in the sales. The factory operates only when there is a need to make more chips. They make about 1,500 one-pound bags of chips in a day.