You say potato, I say pot-ah-toe ... chip. And that's just the start of it.
Though thin and flat may be the national standard — and bestselling variety — of this ubiquitous snack, regional and sometimes hyper-local preferences for different calibers of crunch, thickness, seasonings and endless other elements have created a surprisingly diverse culinary patchwork of chip styles around the country.
That's right — the chips you nosh in the Northeast could be wildly different than those savored in the South.
Midwesterners, for example, prefer a thicker, more substantial chip. Big, hearty chips also sell well in New England and the Rockies, though in the latter area those progressive mountain folk want theirs with artisanal seasonings. Southerners love barbecue flavor, chip industry executives say, but it needs to be sprinkled on thin, melt-in-your-mouth chips.
Southwestern states predictably go for bold and spicy. Local flavors — such as New Orleans Cajun and Mid-Atlantic crab seasoning — find their way onto chips in those places. And people all across the country, it seems, love a curly, shattering kettle chip.
"People like the potato chip they grew up with," says Jim McCarthy, chief executive officer at the Snack Food Association, a trade group that represents the many denizens of convenience store shelves. "There's a very strong brand recognition and brand loyalty to the chip you grew up with."
Potato chips are America's number one snack, according to the group's 2012 state of the industry report, and we spent $9 billion on them in 2010, 50 percent more than what we spent on the No. 2 snack, tortilla chips. More than half of those sales go to Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay North America, whose original thin, crispy chip is the top-seller. But hometown styles still claim their territory.
In New Orleans, Zapp's makes "Spicy Cajun Crawtaters," designed to mimic the flavor of a seafood boil. Nottingham, Pennsylvania-based Herr Foods makes a Philly cheesesteak chip, as well as one meant to taste like boardwalk fries. For other Mid-Atlantic producers such as Hanover, Pennsylvania-based Utz Quality Foods and the Mount Jackson, Va.-chippery Route 11 Potato Chips, crab seasoning is a must, but may be for locals only.
"If you've never had a blue crab experience, or been at a crab feast, you're kind of like, ‘What is this?' " says Sarah Cohen, Route 11 president and co-founder.
Advances in potato chip-making technology and distribution have flattened what may once have been a much wider variety of regional chip preferences, some analysts and executives say. Potato chip making began in the mid-19th century with mom-and-pop operations in practically any small town with access to potatoes, oil and a kettle to fry them in.
Today, the industry uses "chipping potatoes" grown specifically for the purpose, and has developed technology to produce a more uniform chip. Advances in packaging and the emergence of big box chains mean chips now can travel much farther, spreading once local tastes throughout the country.
"Through the mass marketers, through Costco and BJs, Walmart, a lot of product that was regional has now become national," says the Snack Food Association's McCarthy. "You can find Utz potato chips in California and before you couldn't."
For sure, standardization and competition from giant producers like Frito-Lay may have squeezed some smaller companies out of business, executives say. But it may be the predominance of those flat, mass-produced chips that has also kept regional passions alive.
"Trying to compete with the giants out there hasn't been successful," says Inventure's Sklar. "That's where regional players like Poore Brothers come in with a different product and then regional flavors to enhance that. Going head-to-head with Frito-Lay on a flat chip just isn't going to work."