By now, the last bag of Golden Flake potato chips made in Alabama has been eaten. Snack foods under the Golden Flake brand were manufactured in Birmingham for a century. Though the company will continue on as a subsidiary of Utz Quality Foods, its products will, for the first time, be made entirely outside the Yellowhammer State.
It began a century ago as Magic City Foods, a creation of businessmen Frank Mosher and Mose Lischkoff, who started cooking chips and salted peanuts in the basement of a grocery store on Birmingham’s 15th Avenue North. It was a small operation. Mosher and a cook peeled and sliced the potatoes by hand and cooked them in kettles of hot oil. The chips were packaged simply, usually in a grocery bag that was stapled shut. Their product line soon included sandwich cookies and other snacks, all marketed under the name Golden Flake, a reference to the salty chips at the core of the new enterprise.
In 1924, Magic City Foods hired Helen Friedman as a bookkeeper. She and her mother eventually bought out Lischkoff’s share of the company. Young Helen Friedman became a spokesmodel for the growing enterprise, “the Golden Flake Girl,” some people called her. In 1928, she and Frank Mosher married. When the couple divorced six years later, Helen Friedman received control of the company in the settlement.
At about the same time, the advent of airtight, wax-sealed bags transformed the potato chip industry. The innovation meant that companies like Friedman’s could expand the reach of their products. Friedman purchased a small fleet of delivery trucks and began marketing Golden Flake beyond Birmingham and its environs. By the close of the 1930s, the company had a dozen trucks, 50 employees and an expanded 8,000-square-foot production facility on 5th Avenue North.
Although its basement days were long gone, Magic City Foods remained committed to using Alabama products as much as possible, which by then included a ton of Alabama-grown peanuts each week and lots of spuds. Almost 800,000 pounds of potatoes from farms in coastal Baldwin County and north Alabama’s Sand Mountain arrived each year. Advertisements for the snacks included the proud tagline: “A Birmingham Product.”
Friedman sold Magic City Foods in 1946 for a reported $1 million to Leo Bashinsky and his brother-in-law, Cyrus Case. A Pike County native, Bashinsky worked as a cashier at Troy’s Farmer’s and Merchants National Bank before relocating to Birmingham. In 1956, Sloan Bashinsky purchased the company from his father. Having worked both the production and sales sides for a decade, the younger Bashinsky knew the company well. The following year, he changed the name to Golden Flake Snack Foods.
A much-needed expansion soon followed. In 1958, Bashinsky relocated the company to its present site in Birmingham, increasing production capacity by some 500%. “Every modern manufacturing innovation is incorporated,” Bashinsky told The Birmingham News. These innovations including temperature and humidity controls and machinery to slice and cook up to three tons of potatoes an hour. The business expanded by acquisition as well. In 1963, Golden Flake purchased Don’s Foods, adding the Nashville facility to its growing regional production and distribution empire.
In 1968, Golden Flake became a publicly traded company, offering 250,000 shares of common stock for $8 each. Bashinsky used the proceeds to further enlarge his production capacity in Birmingham and to diversify the business into the realms of real estate, commercial building and insurance.
Although Golden Flake never rivaled the nationwide snack-food behemoths in terms of advertising budgets, the company held its own. Along the way, it created some of the most nostalgic campaigns in modern Alabama business history. In the 1950s and 1960s, Goldie, the company’s clown mascot, auctioned off items for empty Golden Flake bags over the television and radio airwaves. For a time in the 1970s, Goldie ceded the mascot crown to the Gobbler, a hulking, 8-foot-tall monster with red-orange hair designed by none other than master puppeteer Jim Henson.
Clowns and monsters aside, the greatest spokesperson for the company was actually a bear, or rather “the Bear.” From 1960 until 1982, Golden Flake was an official sponsor of the weekly television show featuring a certain legendary University of Alabama football coach. Advertisements across the state promoted the Alabama-made chips and Coca-Cola, “a Great Pair,” according to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
By the 1980s, Golden Flake employed more than 2,000 people and boasted annual sales of $130 million. With markets throughout the South, Golden Flake ranked among the largest and most successful independent snack-food firms in the country. Sales doubled every five years for two decades.
“It’s been my life and I’m proud of it,” Sloan Bashinsky told a Birmingham newspaper in 1985. Forbes magazine once referred to Bashinsky as a “Junk Food King,” a reductive moniker, indeed, considering the success and diversity of his company and the depth of his family’s philanthropy. His Bashinsky Foundation offered college scholarships to the children of Golden Flake employees, creating new generations of business leaders, teachers, doctors and lawyers. He died in 2005.
Business history is, at its core, a tale of mergers and acquisitions, a story of change. Only a fraction of American businesses lasts more than a generation. Precious few survive for a century. And so it was with Golden Flake, the Birmingham snack-food company that had grown from simple, kettle-cooked beginnings in the basement of a grocery store into a sprawling, multi-million-dollar operation. In 2016, during Golden Flake’s 93rd year of operation, privately owned Utz Quality Foods acquired the company in a deal worth nearly $150 million. Golden Flake’s brand would remain intact. But change was afoot. In April 2023, Utz discontinued Birmingham-based production of Golden Flake products.
On June 9, 2023, the Magic City’s mechanical potato slicers fell silent. On that final day of production, employee Jeff Clemmons held up a bag of “Sweet Heat” barbeque chips, turned to a reporter who was on hand to witness history and said with pride, “This was made in Birmingham.”
Yes, they were, Mr. Clemmons. Yes, they were.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This story appeared in the December 2023 issue of Business Alabama magazine.