Don Carlo winery photos
Tim Kennedy, the man behind Tim’s Cascade potato chips, in the Don Carlo tasting room, a new company he runs with his wife Lori.
Don Carlo winery photos
Tim Kennedy, the man behind Tim’s Cascade potato chips, in the Don Carlo tasting room, a new company he runs with his wife Lori.

Potato chips and wine may seem like an odd pairing, but visitors to the Don Carlo Vineyard tasting room in Milton-Freewater are always glad for some nibbles as they work through flights of reds and whites.

The combination has worked well for Tim Kennedy. He is the founder of Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips, a Pacific Northwest snack staple. Kennedy returned home to Eastern Oregon in 2006 to retire from food manufacturing and use his distribution experience to start a vineyard with his wife Lori. Don Carlo Vineyard is named after Lori’s grandfather, who emigrated from Italy in the 1930s and settled in Seattle.

“When you’re an unknown launching a new business, especially a wine business, during a recession, you have to rely on your story,” Kennedy said.
The vineyard’s tasting room’s walls are decorated with images of the Tim’s Cascade signature red-and-white striped bag. When tasters show up, Kennedy often serves freshly fried chips, sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese.

Sometimes people ask for his signature on bags of Tim’s Cascade.

“The often ask, ‘Are you really Tim?’” he said. ‘Yup, I’m really Tim.”
Kennedy grew up in a snack-loving family in Athena. He was a good student, played sports, and started his post-high school education at Blue Mountain College in Pendleton.

Kennedy’s mother Ellamae is just thrilled her boy has come home. A resident of Athena since 1950, she has long been active at the small Sacred Heart Church, a mission of St. Andrew’s Church in Pendleton.
“Everyone here knows him,” Ellamae said.
She was proud when Don Carlo’s product was approved for sacramental wine. It is used for Communion at St. Andrew and Sacred Heart.

After earning an associate’s degree in electrical engineering, Kennedy went to work as an electronic technician in a French fry plant, and then moved on to work in a similar position at Nalley Fine Foods. When Kennedy was working in Houston in the early 1980s, he and three of his colleagues began noticing that the quality of potato chips was going down. Manufacturers were trending toward frying in tropical oils and flavor profiles were declining.

Tim and his colleagues wanted to return to the old-fashioned way of making potato chips: Kettle cooked in small batches, fried in peanut oil. As it turned out, their product fit a niche and they soon had a 10-percent share of the Houston market.

In 1986, Kennedy decided to return to the Northwest. He sold his share of the Houston business and started Tim’s Cascade with a small business loan and hired his brother-in-law out of Portland to help. In the Northwest, Kettle Chips were already providing natural, locally sourced products, so Tim’s Cascade focused on bold flavors with a big crunch.

Kennedy and his team experimented with different flavors like jalapeno  (still a No. 1 seller) and Coney Island Hot Dog (which wasn’t as popular). The company’s big sellers today are the sour cream and onion, and sea salt and vinegar.  Dill pickle, grilled steak and onion, and honey mustard are some of the discontinued flavors the company tried out.  Soon Kennedy’s chips were being distributed internationally, and he purchased a popcorn company and the Hawaiian Brand out of Oakland, which is famous for its Sweet Maui Onion chips.

On a trip home to visit family in 2000, Tim and Lori bought a house in Athena, which they used as a vacation home. Neighbors call it the “gingerbread house,” because of its unique wood shingle roof.

Finally, when Tim was ready to retire from Tim’s Cascade, he and Lori decided to buy a vineyard to “have some fun” in their early retirement. Lori went through a four-year viticulture classes at Washington State University, they bought an apple orchard in 2006, and planted the grapes in 2007.

The wine business isn’t so different from the potato chip business, Kennedy said.

“You still have the farming aspect, like you do with potato chips, except now we’re doing the farming ourselves,” he said.

Kennedy takes his turn proclaiming readings during Mass at Sacred Heart and he’s involved in the American Legion.

“There is a sense of pride in the community,” said co-parishioner Ken Bjorklund, about the successful businessman returning to the community.

Bjorklund said he isn’t much of a wine connoisseur, but even so he has purchased bottles of Don Carlo to support the area’s newest entrepreneurs.

Don Carlo wines are starting to sell in stores around the Northwest, and Kennedy and his wife were thrilled when someone spotted a bottle of their wine as a prop on the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”  

One of the perks of retirement from Tim’s Cascade is a lifetime supply of chips. Kennedy also occasionally indulges in a treat he never would have brought home when he was the head of an international potato chip company – Cheetos.

“We’re having fun living down here in rural America,” Kennedy said. “I never thought I’d come back, but it’s been really peaceful and nice.”