Just south of the abandoned Coleman A. Young International Airport you can find the mercifully very much not abandoned Better Made Factory, on 10148 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, MI. They’ve been churning out greasy, lip-smackin’ good potato chips there since 1955, proudly using salt from real Michigan salt mines and potatoes from real Michigan farms. From the great quality promised in blue cursive under the big, bold red letters of the Better Made sign, to the sand-colored bricks and the maze of stainless steel chutes and conveyor belts that carry the chips and other products down the line, little changes here.
OK, well, maybe a few things have changed – for one, the neighborhood around the factory. What used to be a lively middle class east Detroit neighborhood along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares is now just a shadow of itself. Once lined with mom and pop diners, auto repair shops, candy-striped barber poles and quiet bars – all the trappings of a good, churchgoing area – it’s now eerily desolate. Half the homes are quite literally gone. Residential streets end mysteriously before wide, empty lots of wild grass, where cicadas hum and butterflies play. Most of the old storefronts are boarded up or burned out, the bricks crumbling and the paint chipping right off before your eyes. It’s enough to make you want to step in, to hold the bricks in place physically with your hands, as if you could stop the hands of time.
Yes, that’s the visual you’re greeted with before you park in one of five spaces available next to the Better Made Factory Outlet Store, which is attached to the windowed factory and its four billowing smokestacks. As you take your keys out of the ignition, you watch the potato chips from the other side of the glass as they make their epic journey to the bright yellow crosshatched bags Michiganders snatch up at gas stations and supermarkets across the state by the thousands. Personally, I’ve thought many times about just parking myself at the end of the conveyor belt and having them just load the chips into my mouth garbage truck-style. Maybe one day.
The store itself is unfortunately somewhat intimidating, with its translucent glass block windows and heavy steel doors and all. Inside, you’re greeted by friendly, smiling sales clerks that sit comfortably behind a wall of bulletproof glass, the kind you’d expect at a liquor store or gas station in a bad part of town, not a potato chip store. The room itself is cramped, and bits of memorabilia – faded tin cans, newspaper clippings, and the like – are scattered about haphazardly. A few blocks away, scantily clad black women wait on grassy lots for big SUVs to roll up and take them on “business trips.”
Yet, despite the scene outside, it seems like there’s always a customer or two inside the outlet, debating whether to buy 10 bags of pretzels and 5 bags of the salt and vinegar chips, or 5 bags of pretzels, 5 bags of the salt and vinegar chips, and 5 bags of the BBQ chips, or… well, you get the idea. Sure, you could just buy the pretzels and chips at the store down the street, but there’s something tangible and memorable about getting the product fresh from the factory.
I usually get the Rainbow chips. No, they don’t come in seven different colors – these are the dark, slightly burnt chips that weren’t good enough to go into a bag of Better Made Original potato chips. Call them the runts of the litters. They’re crunchier and all the sweeter for it, since the extra cooking time caramelizes the chips a tad. Like all Better Made potato chips, Rainbow chips swim in a vast sea of glorious oil and are showered with heavenly gobs of salt before reaching your mouth, making for the perfect old-fashioned potato chip. No, they aren’t healthy, but they’re positively life-affirming and the perfect antidote for abominations like olestra.
If you ask me, I don’t think you can truly understand Michigan until you’ve been stuck in the backseat of car during a traffic jam, munching on Better Made chips and guzzling some cloyingly sweet Faygo soda. For a moment, the constant buzz of modern life is brought to a forced standstill. You have two choices: get upset, or enjoy your mass-produced food and drink while you quietly admire the trees, the homes, and shops and gas stations, and – of course – the cars, all from the highway. Here it is, the real America, spread out before you.
When I walk out of the Better Made Factory Outlet Store with a bag of Rainbow chips, I feel like I have a piece of history in my hands, a little chunck of the American dream. I think I can even taste it when I crunch into a chip. I know for damn sure I don’t get that same fuzzy feeling when I eat Lay’s.
If you ever get the chance, don’t be a couch potato – visit the store on Gratiot. It’s worth its weight alone in potato chips for the perspective you’ll gain. Also, enjoy this Better Made commercial (note how the father’s head is not shown as a framing device… interesting):