When the chips are up ... expand


POSTED: Wednesday, December 02, 2009

We all know that the path of the startup business owner is not for the fainthearted, especially in Hawaii. Inspiration from a great idea can only carry you a few steps up that mountain of challenge that awaits. How does one reach the top?

“;At one point it was pretty tough,”; says Jimmy Chan, owner of the Hawaiian Chip Company, purveyor of delicious seasoned taro and sweet potato chips. “;The challenge was getting used to the lifestyle of a business owner, while all my friends had real jobs and the lifestyle that that brought. But once I made the commitment to focus on my business, it got a lot easier.”;

Chan isn't saying he's anywhere near the apex of his business success, though perhaps the scrappiest days are behind him. But he has come to learn that a big part is all about the attitude.

“;I was just talking to another business owner, and he was saying you have to enjoy the challenge more than anything. Once you embrace it, you can find success.”;

Chan's latest challenge is pushing his business to the next level: outside Hawaii. To get there his new venture moves beyond chips to barbecue sauce, with a recipe based on a popular sweet potato chip flavor: Kilauea Fire, a mix of garlic, barbecue and habanero and jalapeno peppers.

Chan came upon the idea after finding Kilauea Fire to be his most popular flavor among mainland customers.

“;It has a loyal niche following, but tourists are hesitant to buy the chips to take back, because they're afraid of crushing them,”; he says.

Kilauea Fire BBQ Sauce both appeals to the mainland palate and is unique on the local market, for its “;Western flair”; rather than the usual teriyaki flavor.

The company has been creating recipes that cross-promote the sauce and chips. Kalua pig nachos, for instance, are built upon the chips and topped with the sauce. A chicken wrap is flavored with sauce and features chips as a side.

Locally, Chan plans to distribute the sauce along the same lines he did the chips, starting out first with specialty stores, then expanding into larger markets. Come 2010 the sauce will make the rounds of national trade shows on the West Coast.

TRADE SHOWS have been an integral part of the company's success, starting soon after Chan began his venture in 1999, fresh out of college.

“;I thought I could either go to grad school, get a real job or start a venture,”; he says. “;I figured I can do the other two later.”;

The Big Island-born Chan, who “;just loves to cook,”; made his first batch of chips after watching chef Emeril Lagasse do so on his TV cooking show.

“;I saw the Okinawan sweet potato on my counter and thought it would make excellent chips. It got a good reaction,”; he recalls.

Chan's original intention was to open a restaurant and serve the chips there, but when that prospect fell through, he began selling his product at craft fairs, swap meets and, eventually, trade shows.

“;I started out in my small apartment in Moiliili with a temporary permit from the Department of Health,”; he says.

Chan sliced the chips with a mandoline, fried them in soybean oil and took his seasoning ideas from old recipes. He constantly tinkered with the thickness of the chip, seasonings and fry times.

Today his mandoline has been replaced with a slicer from Japan that achieves the perfect chip thickness. Canola oil, with its zero trans fat, replaced soybean oil. “;Customers tell me they'd rather pay more for a quality product,”; Chan says.

One constant through the years has been presence at the trade shows.

“;The trade shows and craft fairs are key,”; he says. “;I get direct feedback: 'Too much garlic, too much habanero.' So many people are going through, we can survey them while selling chips.”;

Those shows have paid off in other ways as well, leading to radio and TV time. The company's biggest exposure came last year via CNBC's now-defunct “;Mike on America,”; which profiled businesses nationally. Also last year, Rachael Ray's show featured the chips as a “;Snack of the Day.”;

TODAY, Chan's operation is housed in a 5,000-square-foot facility in Kalihi that he owns. It involves six full-time and six part-time workers who peel taro and potatoes by hand, man slicers and fryers, and season, bag and pack the finished product. Production runs from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“;We pack close to 200 cases a day,”; he says. “;That's still small but it's pretty decent for Hawaii.”;

Local farmers aren't complaining. During peak production the company goes through 2,000 pounds of produce daily. That includes purple potatoes from the Big Island, orange ones from Molokai and taro from the Big Island and the North Shore.

“;The best produce comes locally,”; Chan says. “;We use it as much as possible.”;

Chan says business “;has been going full tilt”; for the past couple of months. Even during the economic downturn, he's been able to grow the company a bit.

But he can't take sole credit.

Graphic designer Dave Yanazaki, who was once a part owner, designed the colorful product labels and the company Web site.

“;I got a soccer buddy discount,”; Chan quips.

Then there's his banker, another soccer buddy. And his attorney—soccer buddy. And other investors ... well, you know.

“;My fiancee says there'd be no business if there was no soccer,”; he says.

In the end, though, it all circles back to attitude. Chan's “;can-do”; style keeps him ready and willing to jump into action wherever there's a need.

“;Last week I spent 80 percent of my time cutting potatoes and bagging chips,”; he said.

“;I sort of look at life as 'The Amazing Race.' How do you get from point A to point B with the parameters set before you? That's the challenge.”;



3 pounds Kalua pig
2 12-ounce bottles of Kilauea Fire BBQ Sauce
36 dinner or sweet bread rolls
1 20-ounce can pineapple tidbits
1/2 Maui onion, diced

Heat up kalua pig. In large bowl, combine one bottle of barbecue sauce with pork; mix well.

Cut rolls in halves and place pork on bottom half of roll. Top with teaspoon of pineapple and sprinkle with onion.

For added spiciness, drizzle with more sauce. Serve with Hawaiian Chip Co. Original Flavor Sweet Potato/Taro Chip Mix. Yields 3 dozen sliders.

Note: Vegetarians can substitute grilled tofu in place of pork.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving based on pork: 350 calories, 16 g total fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 650 mg sodium, 35 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 16 g sugar, 15 g protein.

Analysis based on tofu: 330 calories, 17 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 37 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 16 g sugar, 10 g protein.



2 pounds chicken thighs
1 12-ounce bottle Kilauea Fire BBQ Sauce
10 8-inch burrito-size flour tortillas
1 cup shredded lettuce
1/2 cup shredded cheddar and jack cheese
1 cup clover sprouts
1 12-ounce bottle Hawaii's Special Reduced Fat Papaya Seed Dressing

Preheat oven to 375 degrees or prepare grill (brush grate lightly with oil).

In large bowl, place chicken and stir in 1/3 bottle barbecue sauce.

Arrange coated chicken on roasting pan or place on grill.

Bake or grill 20 minutes, then baste with half of remaining sauce. Continue cooking until chicken is done. In another bowl, shred cooked chicken.

Place tortilla in microwave for 10 seconds to soften.

Remove from microwave, then place lettuce on tortilla and spoon chicken over lettuce. Sprinkle with cheese and add sprouts.

Drizzle with remaining sauce and papaya seed dressing, to taste. Serves 5.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on skinless chicken thighs): 900 calories, 35 g total fat, 8 g saturated fat, 175 mg cholesterol, greater than 2000 mg sodium, 94 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 53 g protein.