While The Little Potato Company is one of over 20 manufacturers located in the 115 acres of DeForest’s Business Park on Highway 51, the “company” in its name can be taken as more than just industrial—it’s also familial.
The company’s CEO, Angela Santiago, co-founded Little Potato Company with her father, Jacob van der Schaaf, in 1996.
With small, family-owned farms growing the potatoes, Santiago said family is at the heart of the company, especially all of the DeForest employees who “put the lovely potatoes into bags, making them pretty and delicious for all of us,” she said.
“I find it to be a very intimate interaction that happens—from the farmers growing the potatoes to the consumers picking up a bag at the store—everyone who touches the potatoes are families, the potatoes transition from family to family,” Santiago said.
When Little Potato Company decided to get their foot in the door of the U.S. market with their signature, small potatoes called Creamers, Wisconsin quickly rose to the top of their list.
The DeForest facility is one of three for Little Potato Company, which serve all of Canada and the United States (including Puerto Rico), as well as parts of Asia. The company has its eyes on expanding into Mexico later this year.
The first U.S. facility, it opened in January 2017, and today employs around 140 people. The other facilities are both located in Canada, where the company was founded, in Edmonton and Prince Edward Island.
Those three plants are anchored by growing regions, which are found in Coloma, Wisconsin, Pasco, Washington, and parts of Western Canada.
The DeForest plant gets around 80% to 85% of its potatoes from the Coloma growers, with Washington helping offer a gap crop—primarily in July and August.
Though, as parts of Wisconsin allow for an early crop in July, Santiago believes that they can reach a point where the DeForest plant gets all of its potatoes from Wisconsin all 12 months of the year.
The Coloma area is in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, which is especially conducive to growing potatoes.
Wisconsin is the third largest potato growing state in the U.S. after Idaho and Washington, Santiago said. Potatoes seem to like a colder temperature at night, which means they grow better in northern states, she added.
Apart from its fertile sands, Wisconsin is located below the eastern side of Canada, an area the Little Potato Company was looking to better supply as Edmonton is in the western side of the country.
Sales projections forecasted a lot of growth on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., and the Midwest offered ample freight lanes to reach those consumers.
So while other states were contenders, Wisconsin ultimately was selected to help Little Potato Company expand into the American market.
“I’m really happy Wisconsin won out. it’s been a really successful leap into the U.S. by anchoring in Wisconsin,” Santiago said. “We did look at other states, but we asked ‘where do potatoes best grow’ and we chose Wisconsin because of our ability to grow a really good quality potato here. To really anchor ourselves in the U.S. and expand and grow here, we needed to grow and ship potatoes from here. It’s allowed us to substantially leap into and grow in the U.S.”
Today, U.S. sales outstrip Canadian sales.
“The tides have turned as a company, which is super exciting for us,” Santiago said. “The DeForest plant was an absolute key in order for us to be able to do that.”
Prior to the DeForest facility opening six years ago, the company was dealing with the expensive costs of freighting potatoes from Edmonton and Prince Edward Island into the U.S.
Focus on the family
There was another export from Canada when the facility opened here: Santiago and her family.
She moved with her husband and three of her four children to Monona around the same time, and still has one kid in high school. She said she has felt “privileged” to call the Madison area her home, calling it an “incredible experience.”
From co-founding the company with her father, to relocating her family to help launch the DeForest facility, Santiago says family is at the root of everything they do at Little Potato Company.
“I think one thing that makes us different as a company is our purpose and values,” she said. “I was fortunate to be raised by incredible parents who emphasized helping others and leaving the world a better place. Early on as a company, we articulated and identified our values, which is super important. We said our purpose is to feed the world better. It’s a humbling and rewarding job; we get up every morning for the greater good. How better to do that than be part of growing a food product that is actually good for people?”
The potato has almost universal household penetration, she said, appealing to most people. Even so, many associate them with effort—washing, peeling, boiling.
“A lot of us don't identify making or preparing potatoes with being easy; it takes forever to cut and cook them,” Santiago said.
That’s why the "little" potatoes have been able to become such a success story, she said, as they are “simple and easy, providing little moments of happiness.”
The Creamer potatoes come pre-washed and can be cooked in as little as five minutes. They are also carefully sorted into similar sizes, to ensure that they all cook consistently. No peeling is required, and the company encourages eating the skins to reap the nutritional benefits.
Around 10 years ago, the company also began selling microwave-ready and oven-ready potato kits that came with various herbs and spices ready for seasoning the spuds, such as garlic, lemon, rosemary, thyme, and parsley—another way the product has become popular with busy families.
“The ease of in five minutes you can have a cooked and spiced potato on your plate was a great product that propelled us in the U.S., it sold a lot of people on the little potato,” Santiago said. “Households are changing, and buying a 15-pound bag of potatoes that you need to peel and boil wasn’t serving people anymore.”
As for the potatoes themselves, there are multiple colors—whites, yellows, golds, reds, purples.
Even within the same color category, there can be slight variations in the flavors.
The origins of little potatoes themselves can be traced back to South America, Santiago said. Historical records describe old world potatoes as being small, like “truffles of the earth,” she said, exhibiting “varying shapes, sizes, colors, and diversity like you wouldn’t believe.”
“They weren't like what we’ve come to know as the baked potato,” Santiago said. “Potatoes became the vegetable they are today because they were needed to keep people alive—big, hearty, filling potatoes.”
Little Potato Company has three breeding programs around the world, located in Canada, Chile, and the Netherlands. There are no genetically modified organisms in their potatoes, though Santiago said that the entire potato industry—not just Little Potato Company—relies on selective breeding for its genetics, not GMOs.
Throughout the genetic process, the end-consumer is always top of mind, Santiago said, to make sure the color, taste and texture is pleasing for the consumer, which is tested by chefs before put on the market.
“Very early on we looked at what consumers were looking for in a potato rather than just growing a potato and saying ‘here, buy it,’” Santiago said. “I think that’s the difference between a Creamer and a Russet. Right from the beginning, our eyes are on the consumer—what will please them and bring little moments of happiness? I think that’s unique about our company, we’re focused on the experience we want to create.”
It was a little moment of happiness that helped inspire the product to begin with. Jacob van der Schaaf had fond memories of working as a boy in his father’s fields in Holland, and that the farmers would take the little potatoes home as a treat. It was from that memory that The Little Potato Company was born—to proliferate those little treats into a marketable product.
“He said, why not do that from genetics to get little potatoes to consumers year round?” Santiago said. “We didn’t invent the little potato, but it put a spotlight on our company.”
Rebranding and expanding
As the potatoes are little, every step of the way from planting to harvesting takes special equipment that is more gentle, which is important as being aesthetically pleasing is so important to the brand.
Because of the fine, gritty, sandy soil the Wisconsin potatoes are grown in, they have a special washing process to ensure no bruising or damage.
While an optical scanner looks for defects to reject certain potatoes, it can’t see every defect, so the DeForest plant still has human graders on the lines looking for defects to pull out more rejects.
Around a week’s worth of potatoes are kept at the plant at a time, which is around one to 1.4 million pounds of potatoes. DeForest ships to major national retailers including Aldi, Costco, Walmart and Sam’s Club, as well as local grocers such as Woodman’s.
Last week, the brand launched its first refresh in over a decade. It unveiled a new brand look and feel, featuring more modern, vibrant colors and a new logo typeface. The rebrand also includes a new style of packaging designed to stand out on store shelves, with a clear window to display the potatoes inside.
The rebranding introduces a group of new mascot characters called the Spuddies, which are yellow, red and purple little potatoes who will share messages like “enjoy the little things,” and “a little win for a busy night at home.”
“We did extensive research to deeply understand our consumers, and what they care about is feeding their families with healthy, easy meals and finding moments of connection and joy together,” Santiago said. “We bring that to life in every element of our relaunch, from the colorful logo, to our characters, and our heartwarming ad campaign.”
That’s not the only new thing at Little Potato Company. It’s also building a new facility in Edmonton, and shortly on the heels of that will come more investment into the DeForest plant.
The increased square footage in DeForest following said investment would allow for a few additional products to be produced here, and could "easily" grow the workforce at the plant by 20% to 30%, Santiago said.
“We know we have the scale, and it’s a growing region here, so investment is warranted in the DeForest plant in the next year or two, it’s worthy of it,” Santiago said.