Hen of the Woods - The restaurant that became a snack food business

There are four basic Hen of the Woods flavors: Red Wine Vinegar, A Touch of Smoke, Buttermilk and Chive, and Sea Salted.

Nick and Kimberly Marckwald wanted to open a restaurant. They had lived and breathed that idea since they met.

In 2015, they had the vision, owned the building and had put together almost enough money to do it.

Then things took a turn. Today, the Marckwalds are the owners of a potato chip company with the name they'd chosen for their restaurant: Hen of the Woods.

Nick and Kimberley Marckwald

They left behind their ambitions to be restaurateurs to build a snack food business from scratch. Turns out, though, that the lifestyle, the mindset and work ethic of the restaurant world are what make their chip venture work.

The restaurant dream

Kimberly, who's from Dayton, and Nick, from New Jersey, met while working at a restaurant in Fort Collins, Colorado. They wanted to open their own place, and they had relatives in the Cincinnati area, so they moved there in 2006.

Nick got a job at Nicola's, then Quarter Bistro, Kimberly worked as a server in several local restaurants. They had two children, 11 months apart, and put their plans aside for a few years.

But around 2013, they began to see the changes happening in Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati.

Kimberly Marckwald:

“It felt like it was time to strike.”
After two years of hits and misses, they finally found a place they loved: a former contractor's facility on Main, just near Liberty. They loved it. So they bought it and started renovations.

To get some revenue coming in, they started doing pop-up brunches and dinners in their home, featuring Nick's interest in cutting-edge culinary techniques.

They also set up at Findlay Market, doing food to order, and they participated in a market in Washington Park, where they made some red wine vinegar potato chips as gluten-free croutons for a salad.

People particularly liked those chips, so they started making them in big batches, packaging them in paper coffee bean bags and selling them at farmers markets and local shops.

It seemed like a good way to make some more cash during the long, slow slog of bringing the restaurant to life.

Kimberly Marckwald:

“We did it all ourselves.”

“We'd put the kids to bed, then stay up till midnight, making potato chips. We'd fry them on the stove, put them in big salad bowls and toss with seasoning.”
Nick started with a mandoline to cut potatoes, then got a meat slicer.

Nick Marckwald:

“Then a friend of mine gave me the keys to his restaurant one night a week, and I fried them in two mini fryer baskets.”

“There were days I made potato chips for 16 hours.”
Then they wrote the ingredients on each bag. In pen, by hand.

How the chips took over

They kept at it, because if there's anyone who knows how to work long shifts on their feet until late at night, it's restaurant people.

(Click to enlarge)

Hen of the Woods potato Chips

And who but a chef would come up with flavors like lemongrass and pink peppercorn or churro? They thought like restaurant people, not a snack food company.

Nick Marckwald:

“From the beginning, we thought about how we can make these the best version of chips there are.”
Kimberly Marckwald:

“Our flavors are made with real ingredients.”

“And the texture is hefty without being too hard.”
Then came the day in 2015 when they were selling a lot of potato chips and the restaurant was still stalled, and Nick told Kimberly he thought they had to choose. He was ready to leave the restaurant behind. They chose the chips.

Kimberly Marckwald:

“It was letting go of a dream.”

“All that blood, sweat and tears. But now, thinking about everything it takes to run a restaurant, all the staff hiring and firing, I'm glad we did this.”
Nick is also philosophical:

“In a way, the restaurant system is broken. I would have been asking people to work for starvation wages to work 10-to-12-hour days.”
They continue to work that hard themselves.

Nick Marckwald:

“The learning curve was very steep.”

“We didn't know anything about groceries. We didn't know about marketing, about the grocery business, we had no contacts.”
And it's a difficult business with low profit margins.

Nick Marckwald:

“Even if you can get it in the back door, getting them scanned and out the front door is another thing.”
Chipping away

The new big brewpubs started carrying their chips. They got them into Jungle Jim's and Remke's. They worked with Tiny Footprint distributors, they got into Whole Foods. They went to farmers markets.

When it came to hiring people to work for them as they expanded, they knew exactly who to ask.

Nick Marckwald:

“Who has a better work ethic than a chef?”
Two people on their staff, Brady DeLong and Jason Dranschak, are young chefs. They're not doing the work that chefs in a restaurant do, but they share the vision of real food, real flavors. And they have time to spend with their families.

The chips are now made in a co-manufacturing plant in Northwest Ohio, sold at Kroger in four states and distributed beyond that. Making chips starts with the right potatoes: every chip maker uses chipping potatoes that have low moisture, low starch and low sugar. The variables are how thick they're sliced, what oil they're fried in and for how long. The big differentiation is the flavorings.

There are four basic Hen of the Woods flavors: Red Wine Vinegar, A Touch of Smoke, Buttermilk and Chive, and Sea Salted. Sometimes you'll find Chili con Queso and Everything Bagel flavors.

It has not been easy. But, according to Nick:

“Restaurant people are not about 'No, we can't do this.' They're about 'How can we do this hard thing?”