Jack "Boss" Hogg plucks a bag from the end of the line at the Peerless Potato Chips plant, rips it open, and dumps it. The machinery is supposed to drop exactly three ounces of freshly fried chips into each one, but every so often the scale hiccups, and Hogg, who's packing them into boxes, can feel it when one is light. "I've been doing it for almost 50 years," he says.
Peerless, based in Gary, Indiana, has been in the chip business longer than that. Hogg's father, John Norman Hogg, a British fighter pilot who immigrated to the U.S. after World War I, started the company in 1928. After he lost a finger working for Carnegie Steel, he bought a slicer and a fryer and started selling chips to small groceries and the blind pigs that served millworkers in the final years of Prohibition.
With the recent sale of Jays Potato Chips to Pennsylvania-based Snyder's of Hanover, Peerless is one of the few independent chip makers left in the region, and with big boys like Frito-Lay eating up more and more shelf space, their position is increasingly precarious.
In John Hogg's day, the playing field was more level. He was secretary-treasurer of the industry trade organization—the National Potato Chip Institute—at a time when thousands of small chippers operated across the country. "They'd go to conventions," says Jack's younger brother, Scott. "My dad, he'd be sitting there at the bar with Old Man Jays, Old Man Frito-Lay." Not that the competition was all that friendly. In the 50s, Jack says, a few rivals used to slash Peerless bags as they sat on the shelves or even poke them with hypodermic needles to inject them with kerosene.
"I remember years ago we couldn't have a truck go into the city of Chicago," he says. "Cops would pull you over. . . . Nobody came into Chicago."
Jack grew up working in the plant, and after a tour in Vietnam with the Green Berets, he took over from his old man. Peerless used to do its best business with walk-ins, but they started locking the factory doors in the 80s as the neighborhood went downhill. Over the years taverns and small groceries have become less important to chippers, and the industry has come to depend more and more on supermarkets, a niche just as cutthroat. "I've had buyers for supermarkets sit there, look at me across the desk, and say, 'You give me a thousand dollars per store,'" Jack says. "He'll guarantee us four feet for six months. Then that guy's gonna get caught . . . and he'll be gone, and another guy wants a thousand out of you.'"
So Peerless has never had much presence outside northern Indiana, though you can find its potato chips in some suburban stores and at the new Strack & Van Til supermarket on Elston. But that recent foothold in Chicago doesn't mean it's getting any easier. "I got a store right up the street here a few blocks, I got a liquor store on the corner won't buy from me," Jack says. "I think over the last ten years we probably lost 75 percent of our shelf space." On the back of Peerless's 11-ounce bags the company prints an appeal to its "valued customers" complaining of the "questionable marketing practices" of "conglomerate competitors" that should melt the heart of any self-respecting locavore.
The chips are sold in hot, vinegar, and barbecue flavors and in a wavy variety, but the regular old chips in the red, white, and blue bags are paradigms of the form: pale gold, thin, lightly salted, and relatively grease-free. In the summer months they're made from low-sugar white pearl potatoes grown by a Kankakee farmer. In the winter the potatoes are shipped from storage in North Dakota, then from rotating suppliers in Florida and other parts of the south.
Each week 48,000 pounds of potatoes are loaded into a hopper, cleaned, pulled through a slicer, and dropped into the 325-degree vegetable shortening in a 1950-vintage Ferry Fryer Jack Hogg bought from a Cuban lawyer in Miami. He and his six plant employees begin each day around 4 AM, and he spends much of the morning stationed at the end of the fryer, breaking up occasional clusters of chips with a long spatula before the conveyor lifts them from the oil and carries them under the salter. He reckons he eats about a pound of chips on the line every day. Try it, he says, and "you'll never eat them cold again."
In the afternoon after the line shuts down, Hogg checks in invoices from the company's six drivers, pays the bills, and does the ordering. Most nights he's lucky to leave by 9 PM.
Hogg's sons, who worked in the plant when they were younger, aren't interested in taking over when he's gone. But even though he's had chances to sell out, he's not ready to let Peerless join Kelly's, Chesty, and Mrs. Klein's in the graveyard of regional chippers. "Snyder's offered to buy, but all they wanted was the routes," he says. "They didn't want the building. Didn't care about employees, nothing. They just wanted our shelf space."v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.