Carrie Rengers

Art’s & Mary’s chips has new owner

Wichita’s Sunflower Mountain Distribution is the new owner of Art’s & Mary’s Homestyle Tater Chips. Sunflower includes, from left, COO Bobby Grizzle, CEO John France, warehouse manager Chris Jensen and his wife, Emily France-Jensen, who is vice president of marketing and human resources and also is France’s daughter.
Wichita’s Sunflower Mountain Distribution is the new owner of Art’s & Mary’s Homestyle Tater Chips. Sunflower includes, from left, COO Bobby Grizzle, CEO John France, warehouse manager Chris Jensen and his wife, Emily France-Jensen, who is vice president of marketing and human resources and also is France’s daughter. The Wichita Eagle

In the week since John France and his family closed on a deal to purchase Art’s & Mary’s Homestyle Tater Chips, one thing has become clear.

“These chips – we’ve learned something this week – they kind of have a cult following,” France says.

Emily France-Jensen, France’s daughter and vice president of marketing and human resources, says people keep asking: “Your family owns these?”

France; Sally Blasi, France’s cousin; Bobby Grizzle; and their Sunflower Mountain Distribution purchased the assets of Albers Development, including the recipe and trademark for Art’s & Mary’s and a distribution business that distributes the chips and other food products.

“That made it even more interesting,” France says of the distribution part of the business.

The company formed in November to distribute sauces – a couple of varieties of Hillbilly Konk BBQ – that Grizzle makes.

“I’ve been babying this thing for the last 10 years,” he says of getting the sauces ready.

The partners knew they wanted to distribute other products as well.

France and France-Jensen were discussing potential options one day last spring while planning the company.

They were considering local products to distribute, and they looked at a bag of Art’s & Mary’s chips.

“We were like, Cheney, Kansas,” France-Jensen says. “Hmmm.”

That’s where Albers Development is based.

A previous incarnation of Art’s & Mary’s stopped production in 1996. Albers reintroduced the product in 1999 in just a few Wichita stores. Today there’s statewide distribution, and the Sunflower partners want to go beyond Kansas as well.

The chips are made in Minnesota.

“We tell them every little detail of how to make the chip,” France says.

Sunflower has warehouses in Wichita and Kansas City and a few dozen distributors who do direct service distribution, meaning they stock the chips and other products on store shelves. Their inventories are small, France says, so they’re always working with fresh products.

The partners are close to deals for other products to distribute, France says.

“It just makes sense to add some different products,” he says. “We do have some hopes of some very significant growth.”

That’s going to necessitate a bigger Wichita warehouse. The current one at 1050 E. MacArthur is about 4,000 square feet. Sunflower needs one that’s about 7,000 to 10,000 square feet and can accommodate an office.

France, who has a technology background and has had a few start-ups, says whatever companies have food products that need distributing, “we want to talk to them.”

Even without more deals, he says, “We’re huge compared to where we expected to be.”

France-Jensen has much bigger goals for Art’s & Mary’s and the Hillbilly sauces.

“We want (them) to be household all over.”

Grizzle says being involved locally is important to the Sunflower partners, too.

“We don’t want to be just in the community. We want to be a part of the community.”

It’s been a busy time since Sunflower took over, but Albers Development is consulting for 90 days.

“A big part of this is their training us,” France-Jensen says.

Though there have been some long days, Grizzle says “it didn’t feel like we (were) bustin’ our hump or anything.”

“It’s like living the dream, because we own something.”

France puts it another way.

“Now I’m working for the man, but I’m the man.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers

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