Bottom Line: For Sharon native’s company, tougher tortilla chips come nachorally

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/13/2021 10:56:06 PM
Modified: 3/13/2021 11:01:49 PM

Some Upper Valley kids go on to make good.

Zack Gazzaniga has gone on to make tortilla chips.

(To be clear, the two are not mutually exclusive.)

The former Sharon Eagle Scout — Troop 205 — is the Zack in Zack’s Mighty Organic Tortilla Chips, which he spent two years developing, introduced last year and now sells at the Hanover Co-op and hundreds of other stores around the country.

Gazzaniga says tortilla chips were always his “favorite food” but he grew annoyed that store-bought tortilla chips break easily when dug into a bowl of guacamole. Plus, they taste kinda flat.

So, as Gazzaniga tells it, he went on a “mission” to create a “flavorful tortilla chip that doesn’t break in guacamole.”

Although now based in Brooklyn, N.Y. (“capital of the food movement,” he avers), Gazzaniga spent his formative years in Sharon while his father, pioneering brain scientist Michael Gazzaniga, taught at Dartmouth College. Gazzaniga attended Sharon Elementary School, Crossroads Academy, and one year at Hanover High before going off to boarding school and Brown for college.

Building a better tortilla chip might not seem like every boyhood dream, but Gazzaniga said he had been long intrigued by the food world, which led him to become a food entrepreneur.

During college, Gazzaniga got an internship at granola company 18 Rabbits, where he spent a few years learning the food business from the floor up before joining startup condiments maker Sir Kensington.

He left Sir Kensington in 2017 because “I always wanted to start my own company,” he explains.

The quest for a champion chip began, naturally enough, with a search for corn, Gazzaniga relates.

When he was researching grains in 2018, a grain expert suggested Gazzaniga try Flint corn, a variety that dates back to Native Americans in New England but which lost favor in the early 20th century as other varieties of corn produced greater yields.

Gazzaniga discovered that Flint corn produced a tortilla that is “much more corny” than the usual varieties that go into making tortillas. He experimented with a masa recipe — the ground corn meal — that combines Flint corn with Dent corn.

Gazzaniga eventually found a supplier of Flint corn — in Piedmont, Italy, where farmers still grow it. He imported 2,000 pounds of Flint from Italy and contracted with two farms in New York state to grow and harvest a crop.

He next found a food processing plant — known as a “co-packer” — in northern California that could make the tortilla chips to his specifications. Those specs include cutting the triangular chips from the tortilla after the tortilla has been baked but before it has been deep fried — the same technique that explains why tortilla chips made on site in restaurants are tastier than store-bought chips.

(Cutting the chip from the baked tortilla also makes for a sturdier chip that doesn’t break when scooping up a wedge of guac.)

Initially financed out of his savings and then “friends and family,” Gazzaniga last year raised $3.6 million in startup capital, according to a filing the company made with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That money enabled him to launch the business.

Now that Zack’s Mighty Organic Tortilla Chips is available at the Hanover Co-op and 629 stores in seven states, what’s Gazzaniga going to dip into next? Pretzels? Popcorn?

For the foreseeable future he’s holding onto his chips.

“I want to stay focused on this one chip before expanding into other product categories,” he said.

Chippers joins new family tree

Mundy Wilson Piper, who took over arborist Chippers in 2010 after her then-husband Will Russell passed away, and grew it into a 75-employee company, has sold the business to The Davey Tree Expert Co. of Ohio.

Piper, in a post on the Woodstock-based Chippers’ website, said the time was right for her to step aside after navigating the company through the aftermath of the Great Recession. The sale, she said, also realizes a long-sought goal to transition Chippers to an employee-owned company like Davey Tree.

“Not long after I came on staff in 2000, we began talking about how to make Chippers an employee-owned company,” Piper wrote. But those plans were put on the “back burner” to focus on growing Chippers as the economy recovered. Then the pandemic and investment required to set up employee stock ownership meant that goal would likely have taken “another five to 10 years.”

Piper said she reached out to Davey in 2020 and “what started as a series of casual conversations eventually led to extensive due diligence performed on both sides.”

Chippers will keep its local name and identity but “will now be part of one of the strongest and best tree and landscape service companies in the world,” she wrote.

Piper also sought to allay fears Chippers employees might have over job security.

“Davey is committed to keeping every Chippers employee as part of the company at the same rates of pay and benefits, and our organizational structure will remain much the same as it is now,” Wilson Piper wrote.

Chippers joins a list of other Upper Valley companies that have become employee-owned, such as Hypertherm, King Arthur Baking Co., Gardener’s Supply Co. (buyer of the former Longacres’ Nursery) and consultant Resource Systems Group.

The fine print

■The Dirt Cowboy Cafe, which has been closed since November for renovations as part of its pivot to becoming a takeout-only eatery, is targeted to reopen on March 23, says manager Maura Jenks. The renovations include new digital menu screens and moving the bakery upstairs from the basement to the former sit-down dining area “so everyone can see what we’re making,” Jenks said. Sit-down tables will be placed outside when the weather warms, she adds.

■Jin Chen, former owner of the China Moon Restaurant in White River Junction, which closed last year, has purchased the former Greyhound bus maintenance facility adjacent to the Mobil gas station and Station Market convenience store where his restaurant was located.

The sales price was $452,000, according to real estate records. Jim Ward of Equity Group Real Estate represented the seller and assisted the buyer in the sale.

Chen said he purchased the former Greyhound-owned building to convert into a warehouse and distribution center for products sold on Amazon and eBay that originate in China.

Chen, a Hanover resident, said he is hoping to find a new location to reopen China Moon after the pandemic subsides.

“I had the restaurant for 20 years. A lot of people miss it. I want to bring it back,” he said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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