Mike-Sell's Inc. History
Dayton, Ohio 45404
Telephone: (513) 228-9400
Fax: (513) 461-5707
Incorporated: 1910 as D.W. Mikesell & Company
Sales: $34 million (1992 est.)
SICs: 5145 Confectionery; 6719 Holding Companies, Not Elsewhere Classified
Mike-Sell's Inc. manufactures and markets potato chips and snack foods in a five-state midwest region that includes parts of Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois. Its strongest market is Dayton, Ohio, where it controls about 75 percent of the potato chip market. The company was processing more than 100 tons of potatoes daily going into the 1990s and was growing its operations slowly. The private company releases little information about its operations or financial status.
Mike-Sell's was founded in 1910 by Ohio native Daniel W. Mikesell. Mikesell was born in Miami County, Ohio, in 1883. In 1906, when he was 23, Mikesell moved to Dayton with the desire to start his own business. He started out working for a wholesale and retail dry goods store before serving a short stint as a collector for the Home Telephone Company. Finally, in 1910, he started his own venture. He saw advertised in the newspaper a used dried-beef slicing machine. He bought the contraption and set up a makeshift meat shop in two rooms next to his home. He started selling dried beef and sausage snack foods that he processed with his machine. He delivered his products to customers via bicycle.
Mikesell upgraded his delivery system to a horse and buggy after a few years. At about this time, Mikesell became engaged in the potato chip business when he took advantage of an opportunity to purchase equipment designed to manufacture chips, which were relatively unknown in Dayton at the time. According to legend, a chef named George Crum invented the fried food at an upscale resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, when railroad baron Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his french fries back to the kitchen, complaining that they had been sliced too thick. Disgusted, Crum sliced thin shavings from a potato and threw them into hot oil. After they had fried to a crisp he sent them back to the table, to Vanderbilt's delight. "Saratoga chips," as they were first called, became popular throughout the eastern United States. With help from his wife Mikesell began producing the chips with a few cooking kettles, baskets, and stirrers. The operation was truly vertically integrated, with Mikesell and his wife peeling, slicing, frying, packaging, and then delivering the tasty potato chips to customers.
Customers who tried Mikesell's unique fried potato chips loved them. Mikesell continued to deliver snack food products other than potato chips, because most people considered the chips a seasonal picnic item, but it was clear that the chips were a big hit for the fledgling venture. Indeed, the Mikesells eventually employed their four children peeling potatoes to keep up with demand. Mikesell marketed the chips through county and state fairs, and the entire family traveled during the summers to operate the D.W. Mikesell Co. booth at such events. The Mikesells lived in a tent while traveling and sold the chips out of a glass case, scooping them into nickel bags. In 1913 Mikesell purchased a Ford delivery truck. Evidencing Mikesell's penchant for innovation, his was the first delivery panel truck in Dayton. The side of the truck was embossed with a new, more descriptive moniker: D.W. Mikesell Co. Food Specialties.
After an encouraging three year start-up, Mikesell encountered disaster. In March 1913 a great flood swept the Dayton area. The region was devastated when a levee gave way. Businesses and homes were destroyed. Mikesell and many other business owners were forced to rebuild and effectively start over. Mikesell did rebuild--only to be waylaid by another misfortune. In 1915 a fire destroyed the company's facilities. Again, Mikesell found investment capital and was able to rebuild his snack food company. The company recovered and managed to post solid gains throughout the late 1910s and into the 1920s. As potato chips began to catch on as a year-round food, new equipment was purchased, facilities were enlarged, workers were hired, and new delivery routes were established. Importantly, Mikesell's chips found their niche on local grocery store shelves.
For many U.S. businesses, the Great Depression meant failure or at least diminished profits. Mikesell's was one of the few exceptions. Through savvy marketing, shrewd management, and an emphasis on quality, the company recorded healthy growth throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was in 1925 that Mikesell realized the need for a catchy logo that would stick in customers' minds. The company settled on the "Mike-Sell's" trademark that stuck with the company for more than 70 years. Mike-Sell's began to market its products under that name outside of Dayton for the first time in the 1930s. That effort augmented success in Dayton. Mikesell tore down his house and his potato chip factory and enlarged both. Always on the cutting edge, Mikesell purchased one of the first automated potato chip fryers in 1939. That event, according to company annals, marked a sort of turning point for Mike-Sell's.
Mike-Sell's continued to expand during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It retained its grip on the Dayton market but also established a venerable presence in surrounding Ohio regions and later in parts of Indiana and Kentucky. The success of its simple potato chips was no great secret. Mike-Sell's prospered with a simple strategy that revolved around quality. Mikesell used only the highest quality potatoes. He eventually discovered when and where to buy the best potatoes. As the seasons changed, the company would purchase its spuds from the best suppliers in different regions--it bought from Florida in May and gradually moved northward through Alabama, the Carolinas, Ohio, and then up into Michigan and the Dakotas.
Similarly, Mike-Sell's was the only manufacturer that fried its potato slivers in 100 percent premium peanut oil. Mikesell believed that it was the peanut oil that gave his chips a rich and distinctive flavor. A leader in manufacturing, Mike-Sell's installed the latest manufacturing equipment, and machinery suppliers frequently visited the Mike-Sell's factory to experiment with new ideas that might improve their latest equipment. Among other firsts, Mike-Sell's was one of the first companies to use automatic packaging machines that formed a bag, filled it with chips, sealed it, and then placed twin bags in an outer covering.
In 1955 Mike-Sell's finally moved its manufacturing operations away from the facilities that had been built on the site of the original chip factory. Mikesell built a larger facility, where a series of expansions and additions were made during the next several decades. All the while, the company enjoyed steady growth and financial stability. Dan Mikesell continued to lead his company into the 1960s and up until his death in 1965. Assuming the president and chief executive slot in that year was Leslie C. Mapp. Under Mapp's direction during the next 30 years, Mike-Sell's expanded geographically, retained its quality focus, and continued to be an industry innovator.
Les Mapp's rise to the presidency of Mike-Sell's was the embodiment of the American dream. His parents had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s with the dream of owning farmland. They achieved that dream in Ohio, where the elder Mapp became a successful dairy farmer. Mapp received his education in a one-room schoolhouse near Springfield, Ohio, and then attended Bliss College in Columbus for two years before completing his degree at the Dayton Young Men's Christian Association night school (later named Sinclair College).
Early in his career Mapp was an administrative officer of the Miami Valley Milk Producers Association in Dayton. He helped that organization multiply several times in size during his tenure. It was also through that job that he became involved in numerous trade associations. Mapp, with a broad food industry background, eventually joined Mike-Sell's and in 1952 was named chief administrative officer. He oversaw the construction of a new manufacturing plant in 1955 and was integral to the implementation of modern manufacturing and marketing techniques during the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1970s, for instance, Mapp oversaw Mike-Sell's introduction of the first packaging equipment that would handle aluminum foil. Other producers followed the company's lead, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s Mike-Sell's packaged more of its products in foil than any other potato chip maker. The cost of foil was higher, but it was a price the company was willing to pay for fresher, better tasting chips.
In addition to updating and expanding production facilities during the 1970s and 1980s, Mike-Sell's reached out into new geographic markets on the perimeter of its established customer base. Under Mapp's direction, the company extended distribution into Columbus in 1971 and then into Cincinnati in 1977. In 1978 Mike-Sell's started selling its chips in Lexington and Huntington, Kentucky, before adding Louisville to its territory in 1983. Shortly thereafter it moved into its fourth state with distribution in Charleston, West Virginia. In addition to his success at Mike-Sells, Mapp was a leader in the snack food industry. In 1977, for example, he was elected head of the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association, International, for which he established several new programs including key legislative initiatives in Washington, D.C.
For about ten years beginning in 1972, Mike-Sell's and the Dayton Coca-Cola Bottling Company were joined through a holding company. The idea was to bring together two respected local companies whose products were complementary. The union was successful but was terminated in 1982, when the bottling company was sold off during a period of general consolidation at Coca-Cola. Throughout the mid- and late 1980s Mike-Sell's sustained its steady growth. In 1986 it opened a major new distribution center adjacent to its Dayton manufacturing plant and offices. Then, in 1987, a second plant was opened in Indianapolis. The Indiana plant featured the most modern equipment used in the industry at the time. The plant was initially used to manufacture a new product dubbed "Mike-Sell's Old Fashioned Potato Chips," which was introduced the same year the plant opened.
The new Indianapolis plant made it easier for Mike-Sell's to expand into Indiana, Kentucky, and eastern Illinois. By the late 1980s, in fact, Mike-Sell's was supporting more than 25 distribution centers that served more than 15,000 retail outlets. The core of its product line remained its foil bags of chips from "all natural ingredients" and its "groovy," or ridged, potato chips, both of which were also sold in twin pack bags and in various flavors including barbecue, green onion, sour cream and onion, and mesquite bacon. In the 1990s, the company was planning to sustain its drive to expand geographically, and to focus on quality, customer satisfaction, and technological innovation.
Principal Subsidiaries: Mike-Sell's Potato Chip Co.; Mike-Sell's Indiana Inc.
- Mapp, Leslie C., A Common Thing Done Uncommonly Well: The Story of the 'Mike-Sell's' Potato Chip Company. New York: The Newcomen Society of the United States, 1985.
- Mitchell, Dennis P., "Computers, Expansion, Quality Give Mike-Sells 'Uncommon' Advantage," Snack Food, September 1988, pp. 37-40.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.