LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Detroit potato chip maker Michael Wimberley is still in disbelief that Oprah found his Detroit Friends Potato Chips and featured them on her annual “Favorite Things” holiday gift list.

“It’s a miracle,” he says.

The 53-year-old native Detroiter started the chip company at Van Dyke and East Forest seven years ago to help revitalize the Hope District and provide employment opportunities.

“When we came over in this neighborhood, we looked around and said, ‘Oh. all these blighted and vacant lots, they look terrible!’ Even on one vacant lot there was an abandoned mobile home," he says. "We were like, ‘Oh, we can't stand this. So we got together with some other people from the community and we cleaned up the vacant lots.”

Wimberley decided to use the space for urban farming and started growing potatoes. A friend then suggested he make potato chips. Agreeing it was a good idea, he vowed to give the proceeds to support the community soup kitchen, if the chips took off.

After making several batches of “absolutely terrible chips” — even the hungry regulars at the soup kitchen wouldn’t eat them, Wimberley says — he finally got the recipe down.

“We had to have our own flavor, own texture and crunch,” says Wimberley, who studied business at Michigan State University and has no culinary training. “We’re not really a kettle chip because we’re thicker than a kettle chip, but we have a signature crunch to our chip and then we slice them thicker so their heartier.”

He then reached out to major supermarkets, hoping they’d sell his product, and they all turned him down. But local businesses such as Avalon International Breads, Mudgie's Deli and Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe on Woodward agreed to offer the chips — which come in five flavors: barbecue, lemon pepper, onion and celery, sea salt, and chipotle — on their menu. They’re also sold online at $35 for a crate of eight packages.

Given the chips are not in markets, Wimberley repeats it’s a “miracle” they got on Oprah’s radar.

It was a June 2015 write-up in the Specialty Foods Association magazine that got the attention of Oprah’s people, who reached out that month.

“The folks from ‘O, The Oprah Magazine’ contacted us and said, ‘Could you send us some chips?’ So we sent them some chips.” Wimberley says. “And they really liked the chips.”

A year and a half later, Oprah is featured in a video, dressed in a red and white holiday-themed onesie, giving her endorsement.

“This is how you know a thing is good,” she says, pointing to the barbecue package. “You can see that when you bite into that, that’s going to give you crunch and flavor.”

Popping the chips in her mouth, she lets out a loud ”Ymmmmm...Detroit Friends, yes!”

Wimberley couldn’t be happier to have the media mogul’s approval.

“‘You can’t beat that,” he says of the video. “And it’s not a ho-hum approval. She is super enthusiastic.”

The chips appear in the December magazine and online with Oprah’s review:

"To help revitalize the Hope District of Detroit, Michael Wimberley repurposed vacant lots into community gardens to grow potatoes locally, creating job opportunities and a terrific chip that actually tastes like a sliced potato. I’ll snack to that!"

As far as what’s next, Wimberley says he has “big dreams” to expand to more locations, produce more products — they’ve already started making beet and sweet potato chip — and increase the staff of 10 employees.

But ultimately, Wimberley says he hopes his story will show others that they can build a business from “the ground up” in an underserved community and see it succeed.

“We’re proof that there’s a huge amount of talent in vulnerable, underserved communities that is going unnoticed and unexploited,” he says, “and we need to figure out how to leverage this talent to make Detroit, the country, the world a better place.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter:@Steph_Steinberg

Here are some highlights with suggested retail pricing:

Edibles

Detroit Friends Potato Chips: The Detroit-based company made the 2016 list. Oprah lauded the company for taking vacant lots and turning them into community gardens to grow potatoes and create job opportunities. $35 for eight bags. detroitchips.com.

Oprah’s Poinsettia Flower Pot Cake: On the outside, it looks like the actual holiday plant. On the inside is chocolate cake goodness with vanilla mousse. Very sweet. From MadeinHeavenCakes.com. $165.

“Food, Health and Happiness,”by Oprah herself: Part memoir, part cookbook, a little bit of self-help. Weight Watchers points are included. It’s for fans willing to wait until the book comes out in January. Meantime, it can be pre-ordered. $35.

Tech & tech tools

Travel Cord Rolls: Who hasn’t wasted way too much time untangling cords? Oprah has, and she’s had it. This is a compact, roll-up case with slots to keep your ear buds and charging cords in order. In colored leather, including blue, pink, green and aqua. $20.

Beats by Dr. Dre, Powerbeats3: They’re wireless, lightweight and offer a quick five-minute charge for one hour of playback. Apple.com. $200.

Tiny Tunes: They’re little-creature speakers that pack a powerful sound via Bluetooth, and they’re one of Gayle’s favorites this year. Oddly enough, you can enable a selfie feature and snap a pic. MyAudioPet.com. $25.

Bath & beauty

Supersonic Dyson Hair Dryer: Oprah promises that it’s super-fast, and it has the signature Dyson hole in the middle. It promises a quiet motor, three magnetic attachments and, did we mention, speed. $400.

Organic sachets: They’re filled with dried rose petals and lavender florets to scent lingerie. In a gifty little green box topped by a big splashy flower. Bloembox.com. $20.

Peoni cleansers and toners: New line of products from Oprah’s facialist, Jennifer Brodeur. Free of toxins, artificial fragrances and gluten. Jbskinguru.com. $60 for toners, $195 for creams.

For kids

Jellycats: Unusual, inviting critters with fluffy feather appeal. The hug potential is great. In medium and large sizes, including an ostrich, swan and chicken. Jellycat.com. $23 to $50.

Children’s slippers: Washable terry cloth with nonslip bottoms. Choose cushy white bunnies, brown pups, yellow ducks and more. Yikestwins.com. $24.

Family onesies: Just like Oprah’s. Let baby and bigger kid in on family pajama bonding in horizontal holiday red-and-white stripes. In cozy organic cotton. Burtsbeesbaby.com. $13 to $40.

Pricey gifts

Glyph: It looks like headphones, but in true “Star Trek” manner, it plugs into any HDMI-supported device, goes across the eyes and can be used for everything from checking email to watching movies in digital HD. Avegant.com. $549.

Serif TV: Owe somebody a big-box gift that’s functional and looks like a piece of modern art? This elegant smart TV can be placed on a counter or on its own minimalist stand. It has apps, a full web browser, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Samsung.com. $1,500.

The Cocoon: Yes, gifting someone a mattress may feel strange, but this memory-foam baby’s got buzz. It ships in a remarkably hassle-free box, Oprah promises. From Sealy. Cocoonbysealy.com. $399 to $849.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Read or Share this story: http://detne.ws/2f5Ur2f