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Family shares struggles that built Tuffy's, KLN Brands

Mike Holper (left), Charlie Nelson and Kenny Nelson await an interview from Fred Sailer during a question and answer session at the annual Economic Development meeting Wednesday, Feb. 28, at the Lakeside Golf Course. Michael Johnson/Focus1 / 3
This undated photo of Tuffy's in the early days shows the fleet of trucks ready for loading. Photo courtesy Tuffy's Pet Foods2 / 3
This undated photo shows the fleet of trucks ready for loading outside of the Tuffy's Pet Foods plant not long after the plant began operation. Photo courtesy Tuffy's Pet Foods3 / 3

The making of Tuffy's was tough.

But for a man nicknamed "Tuffy" a road of difficulties was nothing he couldn't handle, especially with the help of loyal, hard-working people. And many are thankful for the work involved in making the business that grew into what is now KLN Brands in Perham.

Tuffy's son, Kenny Nelson; grandson, Charlie Nelson; and former general manager of KLN Family Brands, Mike Holper, all shared thoughts and stories of their years of working to build the brands that all started with Tuffy Nelson at the Perham Economic Development annual retreat Feb. 28 in Perham in front of hundreds of local business people.

The trio were questioned by Fred Sailer, former AD at Perham High School and current recruiter at KLN Family Brands. Kenny was hopeful longtime employee Gary Ebling could join them to share some of his stories but he was unable to attend.

"We had an interesting beginning," Kenny recalled.

He remembered coming to Perham when he was 5 years old. His dad started with a hatchery and shifted to making feed for the birds. When Kenny returned home from college the two worked to start a new venture making dog food. Tuffy's Pet Foods was born.

Work wasn't always fun, sometimes it was downright unpleasant.

To be successful took employees willing to believe in what they were doing and work in all aspects of the job.

That first year, Kenny recalls an 18-year-old Gary Ebeling coming to join the small group of employees. The way Gary worked caught Kenny's attention early on. He told his father about his work ethic.

"He doesn't walk, he runs," Gary told Tuffy. "You've just got to see this guy, he is crazy good."

"He was a very important part of our beginning of our growth," Kenny added. "He was critical in keeping the plant open."

Ebeling continued working there after the company was sold to Heinz Pet Products in 1971 and when the Nelsons bought the company back in 2001. Nelson credited Ebeling with keeping costs down to keep the business afloat. Ebeling just completed his 54th year at Tuffy's.

That buyback 30 years later turned out to be a last-minute agreement, which saved the plant from shutting down and saved a number of jobs in the community. And Nelson considered the buyback one of the best business decisions the company ever made. Since then, the business continues to grow with a new expansion in the works this spring.

Ebeling was one of many employees the Nelson's knew helped grow the company.

Holper started out driving a panel truck making local deliveries. Kenny worked on sales.

But in the early days, everyone did most everything. Whether they wore a business suit or delivered ingredients, they would all come in on Saturdays to clean equipment.

"It was just because the quality of people we had at the time that we were able to have a cohesive group that knew we had to do what we had to do to keep going," Kenny said. "And that's how small businesses get started."

"We kinda survived," Kenny said.

Holper expanded on that saying that the business heard a lot of no's before they heard the yes's from clients.

"Some of the things we did were fun, some of things were not," Holper said.

Kenny remembers after three years of Tuffy's existence he asked a CPA if it made sense to continue the business.

"He said, 'I don't think you should,'" Kenny said.

Kenny was working seven days a week trying to keep the business afloat. Things were not going well. But Kenny asked his dad if he would sign a couple more notes to keep things going, and he did. The next year they started to make money and grew from there.

"I'm very blessed to have the parents that I had," Kenny said.

Kenny said doing what they did was a risky. He had some advice for those looking to be entrepreneurs.

"You have to be a little bit crazy," Kenny said. "It's going to take twice as much money to start as you thought, it's going to take twice as long to get it going and you're definitely going to lose twice as much money as you thought you would.

"No matter how big or small you are, that's kind of the way it is when you start from scratch."

But making that first step into starting a business takes nerve. The group was thankful Tuffy made that step in Perham.

Kenny shared the story behind the name Tuffy. He said one day his father Darrel was walking down the street at age 12, smoking a cigarette of course. He decided to climb a tree and when some other kids came walking by, Darrel fell out of the tree and didn't cry. Some boys thought he was a real tough boy and decided they would call him Tuffy.

Barrel O' Fun

The early days of the potato chip company were tough, too, as poor equipment made the process difficult.

Holper referred to the flow of seasoning on the chips. If fewer chips came through, the same amount of seasoning kept coming.

"Fred (Sailer) said he could remember buying bags of Barrel O' Fun chips that were half seasoning," Holper said.

As parts broke, they began to save money by making parts in house. Over time the packaging and conveyor system became better. The industry started to learn about how to breed better potatoes for making chips.

"We learned as we went," Holper said. "It wasn't only our internal people that struggled, it was the industry was growing as well."

Charlie Nelson, current president of KLN Family Brands, recalled starting out growing the businesses outside of Perham. The facility in Arizona and Pennsylvania were important parts to the shipping puzzle, but added difficulties as well.

He said things have changed somewhat in the business. Employees have always been at the heart of the business, but it's becoming increasingly important to provide incentives to employees to keep them. That also led to the company bringing in an onsite clinic for employees.

Future growth

Sailer asked the current president of the company what he saw moving forward in the industry.

"We just see growth," Charlie Nelson said. "The pet food industry in particular is an exciting one."

Nelson said they hope to double their brand sales in the next five years. They will continue to focus on selling their products in brick and mortar stores.

Holper agreed saying that he saw nothing but growth moving forward.


Years of growth

1964 - Tuffy's Pet Foods opens

1965 -Tuffy's Pet Foods starts making cat food

1967 - Tuffy's started making canned dog food

1973 - Barrel O' Fun Snack Foods Opens

1987 - Kenny's Candy opens

1995 - KLN Enterprises is formed

2010 -KLN Family Brands moves into new building

2015 - New production facility for Tuffy's Pet Foods opens, Barrel O' Fun sold to Schearers Snacks

2018 - New milling construction project starting in April