Driving across 160 between Cortez and the Ute Mountain Farm & Ranch Enterprise (about 14 miles south and due west, much of it unpaved, from Cortez), Neil Hannum peers out the enormous windshield of his early-model yellow delivery truck, named Sunshine, and takes in the four-corners landscape: sagebrush and grey-green outcroppings, red cliffs and alluvial fans. “Man it just makes me want to paint,” Hannum says, raising his voice over Sunshine’s road-weary roar. Five years ago, the former designer (not a surprise when you see his notable, self-designed, logo) was ready to try something new. Durango Snack Werks was born and just like that, Hannum became the Chip Peddler.
Hannum gets his non-GMO corn from the Ute Mountain Farm & Ranch Enterprise (a 120-mile round trip from the headquarters in Durango). With the help of one part time employee, Hannum picks up the corn, grinds the corn, and cooks the chips. And if that isn’t enough, he literally pedals and peddles them himself, his customized delivery bike and bike-trailer playing a pivotal role in his branding. Number four of his company’s four-part mission statement denotes: Give back to two-wheeled sports.
From the very beginning, locals took note. Hannum was everywhere and eventually, so were his chips (both potato and corn although corn seems to be the focus as of late). Now, five years later, his chips have been served at the White House, and major grocery store chains are paying attention to his efforts.
It might be safe to say that Hannum, along with the bike, bowler hat and handlebar mustache, was always the chip peddler. He was already a brand. He just needed the right idea.
Where and when and what was the impetus for your idea to start a local potato chip company? What were you doing for a living before Chip Peddler?
1a) I had been following the local food movement trends
2a) To create local jobs
What were you doing for a living before Chip Peddler?
1b) Living the dream
2b) Selling my soul for little in return
3b) Part-owner of Creative Conspiracy, a graphic design shop
located in Durango
Did you consider other ideas before settling on chips?
Brewery, distillery, art gallery and even a magazine, by the way. I love what you are doing.
Did anybody try to talk you out of it?
The owners of Route 11 Potato Chips, where I bought some of my equipment. Mostly I was encouraged to try by the people who own Durango Soda Company – the makers of Zuberfizz – and SKA Brewing.
Who was your very first customer?
Tell me about that first sale. Did you just walk in with your product and say … say what?
We had taken out an ad in the paper and Kay, at Dietz Market, called us letting us know she was very interested in carrying our products.
What was the moment when you first realized that this idea of yours just might work?
I am still waiting for it, but I’m taking it all step by step.
Looking back, what was your biggest hurdle?
I could say “building the shop” or “getting into stores,” but in reality, I seem to be my own biggest hurdle. All of my weaknesses are amplified; I’m still learning more in failure than success.
Looking forward, what do you see as your next hurdle?
We have been contacted by Whole Foods and asked if we would like to be part of their “Local Vendor Program.” This will require us to focus all of our efforts on the tortilla chip line of products, adding another flavor and all of them being offered in a larger size. Sorry potato chips fans, they will be put on hiatus until further notice.
You have a unique branding concept that is hard to miss (I think you even look like a chip peddler). Where did this branding concept come from? It almost seems like the brand preceded the company instead of the other way around.
As a designer, you have to flush out all of your ideas, and some of the first ones were “Colorado Chips” and “Rocky Mountain Chips” and then somewhere in the brainstorming the name “Chip Peddler” came to me. From there, all of the marketing pertains to letting the consumer know where we buy our ingredients and supporting two-wheel sports.
What would be your advice to somebody considering a similar leap?
Understand marketing and branding, remember after all the hard work, your brand will be the part that is most valuable. Take business classes. Intern at a place with a similar business model.
What are you reading?
I just finished reading Two Years Before The Mast, Richard Henry Dana’s account of working the California hide trade in the 1830s and the trip around the Horn and back to Boston. My great-grandfather also took the same journey in the early 1880s, from Livermore, England, to San Francisco and back as a seaman.
What are you listening to?
KSUT. The programs, Timbuktu and Beyond and The Velvet Rut on KDUR. The artists Carute Roma, Lady Lamb and Eileen Jewell.
When the chips and guacamole come out, do you dig in or, due to your business, are you overdosed on chips?
I think that we make the best “Salty”® tortilla chip in the business and the new “El Rancho con Queso”® tortilla chip is hard to stop eating. So, no, I’m not tired of them yet. /