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A business plan with the right amount of crunch

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One afternoon in Alfred, New York, Brett Stern had a beer in his hand while watching the Food Channel’s “Unwrapped” in his mobile trailer. They were doing a piece on potato chip production and chip flavors. “I bet I could think of a flavor,” he said to himself, and then looked at his beer and thought “beer-flavored chips.”

He shortened it to beer chips and jumped on his computer. “Beer chips” was available as a domain name. For $4.99, he registered the domain and trademarked it with the U.S. Patent Office.

“I hired myself the next morning and said, ‘Self, we’re going to make beer chips’” recalls Stern.

Today, Stern, a resident of northwest Portland, is having the time of his life. The creator of Beer Chips, a sweet and salty beer-flavored potato chip he introduced in July of 2006, is making headway with national grocers, including Sam’s Club, Whole Foods stores in the Midwest, Fred Meyers in Oregon, and he’s talking with Safeway.

Last fall, he turned to the Portland Community College Small Business Development Center to get help on the business side.

“At that point I had written an opportunity plan, but I wanted an outside perspective, someone to look at it and see how to help me make my business grow,” he said.

An inventor and industrial designer by profession, Stern’s path to potato chips is a story worth telling. In 2003, he’d wrapped up two, seven-year jobs in New York City working as a consultant at a think tank. After 21 years in the City, and with some time and money on his hands, he chose to move to tiny Alfred, New York. Stern bought a pick-up truck and rented a turquoise trailer set in a cornfield. His planned three-month rustic sojourn turned into three years.

Not long after, Stern visited Portland to “interview the city.” He moved to Portland in October of 2005 to seek industrial design “green” work, but still tinkering with his Beer Chips concept. An avid cyclist, he appreciated the city’s affair with bicycles, and he liked the microbrew. He also liked the business climate.

“Portland is very cooperative and very entrepreneurial. People are willing to talk to you as an individual, rather than with some big entity,” said the NYC transplant.

Stern landed a job teaching industrial design at the Art Institute of Portland and several months later cycled to the Microbrewer’s Association yearly festival at Waterfront Park. He knew then his new hometown was tailor-made for Beer Chips.

The next day, he called Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center (a partner with Portland Community College’s SBDC on several projects) and tested flavoring. He already had a co-packer lined up from his days in Alfred and in July of 2006, delivered his first eight pallets of chips to a Portland beer festival and later to the American Beer Festival in Denver. Before getting too far ahead of himself, Stern thought it best to touch base with the SBDC at Portland Community College.

“The SBDC is a very good sounding board. I came in with experience, but I needed to make sure I wasn’t listening to myself too much,” he said. “They give you contacts. Banks, an accountant, and names to go with that.”

Most importantly, Stern said the SBDC helps deliver perspective. He was selling locally and in niche grocery stores such as New Seasons and reluctant to consider big box or convenience stores.

“I thought it would lose its cachet,” Stern said. “But the SBDC (said) the reality is that you have to go that way. With potato chips, its not pallets, its tonnage. Truckloads.”

His long-range goal is to license the product and sell his company. But in the mean time, he’s having fun.

“People are buying into the story,” he says. “When people look at the bag, they know some large multi-national didn’t do it. Some crazy guy loaded up his pick-up truck and made deliveries and put out a pallet of potato chips. I love doing food. It is so much fun. It is pure design color, shape, form, line and texture and you can eat it!”

Up next on the adult snack food product line Bloody Mary and Margarita flavored potato chips. He’s also thinking about microwave popcorn.

“Brett is designing and marketing a brand,” said Tammy Marquez, SBDC counselor. “That is where we can help.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »