PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
“Mad scientist” taking a bite out of the crowded chip market with flavors like ham off the bone, beets and banana split.
Ocala is known for thoroughbred horses, movie star John Travolta and nearby Silver Springs. But, Joseph (Joe) Trudel is hoping to add one more unique item to that list … a delectable brand of potato chips.
“Bonjoe Gourmet Chips is at the threshold and doors just keep flying open,” he says with a grin. “Ultimately, I’d love to see it become a manufacturing company that goes worldwide. I want us to stand next to the big boys and put Ocala on the map.”
Bonjoe Gourmet Chips is the mad scientist creation of Trudel, who’s affectionately known as the Willy Wonka of potato chips. With flavors like ham off the bone, glazed donut with raspberry and movie theater popcorn, it’s a title well deserved.
But anyone who meets Trudel inside his modest storefront near Belleview off U.S. Highway 441 quickly learns that his quirky potato chip business isn’t a harebrained gimmick he hopes will make him rich. He has a genuine desire to help people snack guilt-free without giving up flavor.
“I’ve always had a creative mind,” Trudel explains, “And all I wanted to do was create a healthier bag of chips that also tastes good. I’m not here to make a bunch of money or get famous; I believe doing the right thing will pay for itself.”
Healthy potato chips sound like an oxymoron, or a mythical marvel, like Loch Ness or Sasquatch.
Yet Joe has figured out exactly what it takes to make one of America’s beloved snack foods more wholesome. The process, of course, is a well-guarded secret. All Joe will reveal are that his potatoes undergo an aggressive filtration process that reduces starches by up to 35 percent. He then fries the paper-thin chips in corn oil at a temperature that gives the desired crunch without breaking down all the potatoes’ vitamins and nutrients. Plus, he leaves the skins on, which means even more vitamins and minerals.
As a result, Trudel has a chip that is not only melt-in-your-mouth delicious but also healthy.
“Because I take out so much of the starch in potatoes, diabetics can eat my chips and not worry about a spike in their sugar. I use zero chemicals, aside from the nitrogen I use when sealing the bags to keep the chips fresher longer,” he says. “Each bag comes in under 200 calories, which is pretty good when you look at what the national brands are doing.”
For example, a 1-ounce bag of Lay’s Classic potato chips contains 160 calories; a 2.5-ounce bag of Bonjoe Gourmet dill pickle-flavored potato chips has 192 calories.
Americans faithfully chow down on 1.2 billion pounds of potato chips every year, yet Trudel says that none of the world’s 2,700 potato chip companies was looking at making a healthier product.
His biggest inspiration to launch Bonjoe was his mother, who suffered from type 2 diabetes.
She also was the one who taught him to cook at an early age.
“She began teaching me to cook when I was 5 years old,” says the New England native. “From her, I learned how to make the same dish but make it taste a little different each time. I guess that’s why I apply that same technique to my potato chips. I make them the same every time, but I give them different flavors and that’s what makes them exciting.”
A college student by age 16, Trudel was able to fly through his business management and psychology studies and graduate two years ahead of time from the University of New Hampshire. He trained in culinary arts in Boston before opening his own business, which, surprise, wasn’t a restaurant.
“At 18, I started my own construction company and built half of Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. I did that for seven years before moving to Ocala in 1981,” says Joe.
While his main objective was caring for his ailing father, Joe put his culinary training to the test. He ran Our Place restaurant on State Road 40 in the Ocala National Forest while his father’s cancer was in remission. From there, he looked all over for the right place to open a gourmet restaurant. He settled on Hernando, Mississippi, because it only had one good restaurant.
“And it needed competition,” he says.
Located just 12 miles south of Memphis, Joe’s steak and seafood joint garnered a lot of foot traffic, mainly from those looking to try their luck at the area casinos. And while most would expect filet mignon or lobster tail to be the star of a gourmet steak and seafood restaurant, what really grabbed folks was his potato chip appetizer.
“That is where the whole potato chip idea got started,” Trudel says. “I made them fresh in-house and served them hot with a fruit seasoning and cream cheese dip. Before I knew it, people were coming in just to buy the chips. I was making anywhere from 800 to 1,000 pounds of chips a week.”
Though he knew he was on the cusp of something great in Mississippi, Trudel had to walk away from his dream restaurant to return to Ocala when his father’s cancer returned. Trudel brought his chips with him and began selling Bonjoe Gourmet Chips with his wife (now ex-wife) Bonnie and stepdaughter Amanda at the I-75 Super Flea Market.
They instantly became a hit with flavors like banana split, beets and salted peanuts. How he concocts these strange yet incredibly accurate and edible flavors is a mystery. The recipes are all in his head and the only other person who knows his secrets is his stepdaughter, who he’s hoping will take over the business when he retires. But retirement is the furthest thing from Joe’s mind. After taking a hiatus to care for his mother, Joe returned last year with a new storefront and burning desire to launch Bonjoe into the stratosphere. And this time, it looks as if he’s on his way.
Bonjoe chips can already be found in popular Ocala hangouts like Infinite Ale Works and O’Malley’s Alley. He’s also a regular at farmers markets in Ocala, Leesburg, Lady Lake. And new protein chips can be found at Doc Hall’s Fitness & Nutrition.
“The protein chips contain 20 grams of protein in each bag. I coat them with a whey isolate, so they’re great for bodybuilders or those who like to work out. I’m working on doing another protein chip with soy whey for losing weight. And what’s great is people can enjoy great flavors like strawberry cheesecake without having to fill guilty. My goal is to be in every gym across the country.”
In early February, Great Plains Holdings, Inc. acquired 51percent of Bonjoe Gourmet Chips LLC for stock and a working capital loan. And 100 new Florida convenience stores run by Mr. Checkout are test marketing the Bonjoe Gourmet Chips brand.
Sounds like it won’t be long before Joe Trudel is being mentioned in the same breath as thoroughbreds, John Travolta and Silver Springs.