Willis Stein buys another snack food co

The Chicago middle-market firm agrees to buy up debt-ridden Jays Foods, a snack food maker known for its line of potato chips in the US Midwest.

Demonstrating it can’t stop buying ‘em, Chicago-based middle market private equity firm Willis Stein & Partners today agreed to acquire Jays Foods, which today also filed for US bankruptcy protection, in its second snack foods company acquisition in the past week.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Jays is expected to emerge from bankruptcy protection in April, at which time Willis Stein will acquire the company’s assets.


Last week, Willis Stein completed the purchase of Lincoln Snacks Company from Stamford, Connecticut-based private equity firm Brynwood Partners.


Headquartered in Chicago, Jays is known for its Jays Potato Chips which are distributed throughout the Midwest under the slogan “Can’t stop eating ‘em.” The company also produces other brands such as Krunchers Potato Chips and O-Ke-Doke popcorn, and markets pretzels, tortilla chips and other products under the Jays trademark.


Willis Stein managing partner Avy Stein said the investment is not an operational turnaround. Rather, his firm is looking to provide the company with more equity to grow and fix its balance sheet, which is currently loaded with debt even though the company has a solid product line and did more than $100 million in sales last year.


Stein said his firm will keep the Jays Chicago-based plant open and continue to grow the business under a new management team led by Tim Healy, a food industry veteran who led the successful turnaround of Select Beverages soft drink bottler and has held senior executive positions at major US food companies General Foods, HJ Heinz and Frito Lay.


Willis Stein & Partners manages approximately $3 billion in equity capital. The firm closed its third fund in June 2001 on $1.8 billion and also invests primarily in media, telecommunications, business services and healthcare companies. According to Stein, the Jays acquisition is part of Willis Stein’s broader snack food initiative, which will be headed by Healy.