Not crisps, potato chips

29. 6. 2016 | Source: BusinessInfo.cz

That’s more or less the translation of a slogan used for going on 30 years by one of the largest Czech potato chip manufacturers, Petr Hobža and Sons. Over this time, production requirements have soared from a mere six kilograms of potatoes per day to today’s 40 tonnes. But all the while the original recipe has remained unchanged.

During the communist era, the founder of the crisps brand which now bears his name mostly worked as either a waiter or warehouseman, after graduating from a secondary economics school in 1974. "But money continued to be in short supply, so in 1988, thanks to permission obtained from a national committee [an all-powerful communist organ -Ed.], we took over the running of a buffet at a summer cinema," Petr Hobža, Sr., recently turned 60, recalls.

The buffet's assortment was rather limited, so the would-be entrepreneur decided to offer customers potato chips by slicing and frying them up himself. "They became popular right away. Everyone had a greasy mouth from the potato chips and a plastic cup of beer in their hands – that's how we started."

But the communists at the national committee weren't happy. They sought to tighten the reins on the potentially independent enterprise, turning it into a nationalised small business. Thankfully, however, the regime's time was up. The 1989 Velvet Revolution meant that Hobža and his wife were free to run their own enterprise. But the cinema buffet, based in the far eastern Moravian town of Strážnice, lasted but a short time. Soon production had to be shifted to their family home. There, in the garden, a specially built production line served the firm's needs until 2012.

Full steam ahead

Right from the outset, demand for the home-made crisps was high and continued to climb. Soon deals were struck to sell packs in private stores and at events such as funfairs. When 70 boxes were sold in the space of 20 minutes at one of these events, the die was cast. Ideas to potentially expand into other gastronomic areas were barely even considered. "We were so enthralled that we never made any other kinds of plans. We never gave a moment's thought to the idea we might go under. We were simply swept up by the experience," laughs Hobža. Up till that time, the crisps were made in large repurposed frying pans, bought second-hand for a mere CZK 150 each.

But soon substantial investments were made. Increased demand led to the creation of a full production line. With the aid of a – huge for this post-revolution time – personal loan – the firm spent CZK 8m on obtaining Italian-made cooking technology. The loan meant re-mortgaging the flat and small family home. The new production line emerged in the garden of the latter. Their success led to the rise of a number of competitors. Soon, rival potato chips were being fried in Veselí or in Kozojídky. But none of these enterprises lasted long. "Maybe they thought it was a golden goose. But at the outset, that was far from true. Rather, it was a lot of hard work – 25 hours a day."

Going national

The next major leap came with the entrance of Dutch supermarket chain Ahold into the Czech Republic. Operating chain stores Mana and Albert, they became the first supermarket chain to stock the family-made Hobža crisps in bulk. By the mid-1990s, the Strážnice- made potato chips were available across the entire country. By 2012, after more than 20 years, production finally shifted from the Hobža family's backyard and into a professional plant situated in one of two industrial zones in Strážnice.

This required fresh investment to the order of EUR 7m, or almost CZK 200m. The new production line is unique in that Hobža used past experiences to assemble it from various machinery sourced from a number of different suppliers. "The production line is alone in type worldwide, you won't see anything like it anywhere else. It comes from seven various suppliers, who have never seen each other; from seven assorted countries including Japan and the United States," says Hobža's son, sales manager Petr Hobža, Jr.

The firm is also equally proud to boast that it does not make "chipsy" [crisps], but "brambůrky" [the more refined-sounding "potato chips"]. The former are subjected to blanching, meaning the slices of potato are rinsed in water prior to frying. This enables a far wider range of potato varieties to be used in the process. The Hobža family believes the blanching process robs the potatoes not only of starch and sugars, but also of their distinctive "potato" taste. "You can use three potato varieties for potato chips, depending on the time. With regular crisps you can use 12. The former are harder to fry as they have a tendency to caramelise. Which makes the process of creating potato chips more complicated," explains Hobža Jr.

Busy customer support line

The front of each pack of Hobža potato chips features a prominently displayed 24-hour customer support telephone line. Apparently customers call often. During weekdays, queries tend to be of the standard variety, dealing, for instance, with where the chips can be purchased, perhaps in bulk for an upcoming soiree. The second kind of caller tends to make themselves heard after 8-9 pm on a Friday night. "Sometimes it's a little difficult to understand these callers, but the feedback is usually very positive," chuckles Petr Hobža, Jr.

The family have had to get used to the fact that such mildly inebriated customers generally address them in the familiar "Ty" [you], for example asking why the chips aren't more greasy. "But the fact that they are calling means they have bought the product, so then how they address us it is almost irrelevant," says the family's elder Petr Hobža.

Hobža's kingdom

  • The first batch of potato chips was fried in 1988
  • Potato consumption has climbed from 6kg per day to 40 tonnes, yielding turnover of CZK 160m for the firm in 2015
  • The firm's new production plant, situated in an industrial zone in the town of Strážnice, has been operational since 2012, and employs around 50 people
  • Petr Hobža's two sons, Petr (born 1986) and Libor (1979) are among the firm's staff. Tuning into their father's enterprise, both gained degrees in economics and management. Since 2013, Petr has served as sales manager and Libor has served as production manager


Originally published in E15 weekly, economic and business newsmagazine. Author: Dušan Kütner, Photo: Michael Tomeš

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