ATHENA, Ore. — If you ask Tim Kennedy, Frito-Lay pretty much ruined potato chips in the mid-1980s.
“Flat and flavorless” says Kennedy, who in 1986 started his own company to make a thicker, crunchier style of chip. Thirty years later, Tim’s Cascade Snacks is an iconic Northwest brand distributed in 13 states, parts of Canada, Mexico and overseas to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
Kennedy, 68, was born in Pendleton and raised in Athena, where he lives with his wife, Lori.
Though Kennedy retired in 2005, he remains an ambassador for Tim’s Chips and a local celebrity. He recently visited the Seattle Food and Wine Experience in February, signing bags of chips for fans who just had to ask, “Are you THE Tim?”
“I take it with good humor,” Kennedy said. “I get asked a lot how did you get started with chips.”
Before he was “THE Tim,” Kennedy was an electrical engineer who worked in packaging plants for potato processors. He graduated from McEwen High School in 1966 and Blue Mountain College in 1968 before landing his first job doing electrical and maintenance work at Lamb Weston in Hermiston.
Years later, Kennedy moved to Tacoma, Wash., and got a job with a company called Mira-Pak, which at the time was installing state-of-the-art potato chip packaging equipment for Frito-Lay and other facilities along the West Coast. It was there he met Jay and Don Poore, who convinced Kennedy to partner up on a chip enterprise of their own.
They joined a man named Horace Groff, who had made potato chips in Pennsylvania and decided to branch out into Houston. Together, they launched Groff’s of Texas in 1983 and began thinking of ways they could distinguish themselves from Frito-Lay.
“Here we came, just with blinders on, to start a potato plant and compete against the giant,” Kennedy said.
For starters, Kennedy said they used peanut oil instead of lard, which gave their chips a better crunch. They were also the first in the country to introduce a jalapeño flavor, Kennedy said, which took off and gave them a 10 percent share of the market in Houston. Jalapeño remains the highest selling flavor of Tim’s Chips to this day.
“They just went nuts for it,” he said.
After three years, Kennedy decided to strike out on his own and return to the Seattle area, where he established Tim’s Chips. As for the Poore Brothers, they launched their own successful chip brand in Arizona, which is still produced today by Inventure Foods.
Tim’s Chips are kettle-cooked in relatively small 400-pound batches, made from potatoes grown in Oregon and Washington. The company marks it’s 30th anniversary this month.
“There’s not everybody who can start a business from scratch and have it last 30 years,” Kennedy said. “It’s a small business, but it’s something to be proud of.”
When Kennedy retired in 2005, he handed the reins over to his brother-in-law, Jeff Leichleiter, who was one of the first people he hired. The company has about 80 employees working out at the plant.
In 2007, Tim and Lori Kennedy moved back to Athena and transitioned from the chip business to the wine business. They own Don Carlo Vineyard — named after Lori’s grandfather — which is part of the new Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area. Of course, Tim’s Chips are served with glasses of wine in the tasting room. Kennedy recommends jalapeño with the Chardonnay, and Parmesan and garlic with red wines.
Breaking into the wine business has been difficult, with competition from 120 other vineyards in the Walla Walla area alone. But, as with any other local business, it’s all about putting yourself out there, he said.
“When we started Tim’s Chips, we couldn’t get into any of the major stores,” he said. “It’s all about having people taste it, and hearing your story.”