DEFOREST — Many parents might recall reading a book to their children called “The Little Engine that Could,” sometimes over and over again. It’s a story of a small train that tries its best to bring toys to children on the other side of a hill.
The story of The Little Potato Co. is somewhat like that. Angela Santiago, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, and her father and co-founder, Jacob van der Schaaf, were told more than once that no one would want the small potatoes they were hoping to market, but that didn’t stop them from pursuing their dream.
The Little Potato Co. celebrated the grand opening of its new U.S. processing facility in DeForest on July 27. The $20 million facility is building up steam to supply pint-sized potatoes to consumers across much of the country. The company specializes in creamer potatoes, potatoes that mature at a smaller size than potatoes that are usually found in a grocery bag. Demand for the potatoes has grown exponentially since van der Schaaf came up with the idea a little more than 20 years ago and convinced his daughter to join him in the effort.
Van der Schaaf, a Dutch immigrant, longed for the small creamer potatoes he had eaten as a youngster, so in 1996, he suggested to his daughter that they test out the market for little potatoes.
They planted their first creamer potatoes on a 1-acre plot just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, weeding and harvesting it by hand. They washed their first crop in the family’s bathtub.
The first crop was a success, so father and daughter upgraded to an old root cellar where Santiago began the task of sorting, washing and bagging the potatoes. She then packed them into the back of her car and set off for farmers’ markets and restaurants.
The potatoes became popular with restaurants and retail consumers and demand quickly grew. They built their first plant in Edmonton in 2000, with equipment modified to handle the small potatoes with appropriate delicacy. They expanded again in 2004 and later built another processing facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
With demand steadily growing in the U.S., Santiago began looking for a place in the U.S. that would be well suited for potato production and distribution. She settled on Wisconsin and DeForest for several reasons.
“We probably spent two years doing a lot of research, not only where to grow and where we could find the right growers, but also the right area in Wisconsin,” she said. “We did research on our five-year strategy, where the sales are going to be, population base, distribution, and layered in where potatoes are going to grow well.
“Wisconsin checked a lot of boxes. It has a great growing area (the Central Sands area) and we also felt really comfortable with the people. The culture of the people here is very similar to the prairie Canadians. Very down to earth, very friendly, very open. They’ve been very supportive and welcoming us to the community.”
Santiago said DeForest, Dane County and Wisconsin governments all offered business incentives that played “a big factor in us settling here.”
The fact that UW-Madison has a strong potato research program also played into the decision to move to Wisconsin, said Sanford Gleddie, vice president of agriculture and business development.
About 100 people have been hired since January of this year and company officials anticipate adding another 30 by the end of 2017.
“Finding employees is not easy, but the people we have working for us so far are great finds,” Santiago said. “I think the culture of the company and how we treat and value employees has been key in our ability to find good workers.”
Gleddie said the company contracts with Tuberosum Technologies, a Canadian potato-breeding company, to develop proprietary creamer potato varieties and with potato growers to grow the potatoes.
Santiago said their potatoes are being grown on about 1,500 acres on five central Wisconsin farms this year.
“It all starts with the variety,” Gleddie said. “These are varieties that are bred and selected to set a lot of tubers. We want a lot of potatoes under each plant. They need to be relatively thin skinned so they can be enjoyed skin-on. Of course flavor is a big part of what we are breeding for.”
Santiago said the Wisconsin potato growers have been willing to retrofit their planting equipment and in some cases purchase new harvesting equipment to properly handle the smaller potatoes. The mature potatoes generally range in size from ¾-inch to 1⅝ inches.
“The fact that growers are investing in equipment and storage facilities is quite phenomenal,” Santiago said. “They are jumping in with both feet. It’s quite humbling and flattering for us to be this new into the area and see growers embracing what we’re trying to do.”
Employees at the DeForest facility offload potatoes from trucks that bring them in, and then grade, sort, wash and package the potatoes in advance of distribution. Some potatoes are put into cold storage and processed at a later date, to keep the facility running year-round.
Santiago said many potato growers have sold small potatoes to farmers’ market customers for years, and many people might remember as a child seeing small potatoes left behind in the fields when the larger potatoes were harvested. But The Little Potato Co. is the first firm to specialize in marketing the small potatoes on a larger scale.
“My father and I were not in the agriculture business, so we came into this with no preconceived notions that you couldn’t do something,” she said. “I think the second advantage we had was we really wanted to connect to the consumer. It was us growing a product that the consumer wanted, instead of growing a product and then selling it to them.”
Santiago, 46, said she feels a personal connection to other women who want to feed their family with healthy food and don’t have a lot of time to do it.
“I think that was the big issue in the potato industry that was being ignored,” she said.
Nine varieties of the company’s potatoes are sold in 1½-, 3- and 5-pound packages, while three 1-pound microwavable packages and three 1-pound oven- or grill-ready packages are also available.
The smallest bags generally sell for between $2.99 and $3.99 per bag, Santiago said, depending on the retailer, while 3-pound bags sell for $3.99 to $4.99. The microwavable and roasting packages typically sell for between $2.99 and 3.99.
“I get up every morning and I enjoy coming to work,” Santiago said. “I enjoy feeling challenged and fulfilled and I enjoy the people I work with. I want that same feeling for everybody who works here, so when they leave at the end of the day, whether they receive potatoes or grade potatoes or are in the packaging line, they feel they contributed and were valued.”
Santiago and her family have moved to the Madison area for the next two years, and after that will see what happens, she said.
“As a company we wanted to send a message that this is an important and big move for this company,” she said. “I am not moving here to course correct, because the employees are doing an amazing job. I’m here to support and help grow the culture of the company.
“And it’s a family adventure. You learn a lot when you live in a different part of the world. Our whole family is excited about it.”
Long-range plans call for the company to eventually build another processing facility, perhaps in the Northwest, within two or three years.
Santiago said her father, now 73, is still active in coming up with new ideas and supporting the company.
“He’s one of those gentlemen who doesn’t believe in retirement,” she said. “He believes in always being active and busy.”
Santiago said she “fell in love with potatoes” and the idea of getting up every morning and making a product that is genuinely good for people.
“It’s guilt-free to wake up and sell a product that actually helps families, nutritionally as well as conveniently,” she said.