A First Nation in southern Manitoba is weighing its options for what to do with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of potato chip equipment it owns, which is gathering dust in a factory.
Swan Lake First Nation paid $800,000 in 2005 for equipment that would produce potato chips, and another $900,000 for upgrades when it arrived from Egypt, according to a recent Facebook message to band members by Chef Jason Daniels.
Since then, the unassembled equipment has been in a factory about 124 kilometers away in Rivers, Manitoba. – for which the band pays a monthly storage fee of $1,200. It still hasn’t produced a single chip.
“It’s a handicap. It’s costing us money. Something has to be done about it,” Daniels told CBC News.
Daniels was elected chief in September 2021. He previously served one term as a band councilor in the early 2000s and, he says, knew management was considering the purchase, although he was not in office when the deal was done.
He said he would like to hear the members’ opinion on what to do now.
According to Daniels, the equipment was supposed to create a “Pringles-style” stacked chip, which is more difficult to produce than regular chips because it requires different ingredients to compress into the specific shape.
“Since we bought chip material, it’s depreciated to such an extent that even if we sold it for $20, we’d walk away with $20,” he said.
“I don’t really like that concept. … But we have to make a decision.”
Daniels wants to explore if the equipment could be turned on and possibly create revenue for the First Nation, which is 136 kilometers west of Winnipeg.
“There’s a huge market there… So can we tap into it? Can we tap it? Can we do it? And what’s going to cost more? Because we don’t have the flavors, we don’t have the potatoes, we don’t have “I don’t have the necessary distribution license. So it may cost a bit more money to make it operational,” he said.
Daniels says he had some preliminary conversations with Alfred Lea, the owner of Tomahawk Chips in Riverton, an Indigenous-owned and operated potato chip company.
Daniels says the group will likely pay for a “little feasibility study” to see if there are any potential partnerships that might work between Tomahawk Chips and Swan Lake.
Lea, who has been in the potato chip industry since 2015, has been able to sell her products in some big box stores like Walmart in Winnipeg. He says he’s willing to share information with Daniels and Swan Lake.
Lea says it’s hard to break into the industry and it could cost upwards of $100,000 just to get a product like potato chips to the big box stores, not including production expenses.
“It’s going to take more money to make it work,” Lea said in an interview.
“And then on top of that, now they’re going to have to find a market for it… That’s the biggest challenge, not getting it started.”
Konwatsitsawi Meloche, is Kanien’kéha from Kahnawake, Quebec, and has been involved in sales and distribution for Lea and the Tomahawk Chips brand in that province for approximately four years.
She says there’s a growing market for Indigenous businesses like Tomahawk Chips, though she’s still had to keep her day job as a speaker/educator.
“We don’t get the same funding as Pringles or Frito-Lay. We’re the hustlers. It’s a lot of work,” Meloche said.
Over the years, she has primarily distributed the chips to First Nations in Quebec, but says it’s still a side hustle for her and her husband.
Lea says it can be difficult for First Nations to manage larger businesses due to leadership changes that take place with elections.
Lea says Swan Lake faces an uphill battle if it wants to start a chip business, however, he’s willing to share best practices as the First Nation determines its next steps.