-- 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 Rosslyn, Va.-based 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 the Pacific Northwest, Seattle's thick-cut Tim's Cascade Style offers big bite and bigger flavors, such as jalapeno made from real peppers and a salt and vinegar chip that "makes you pucker" says Dave West, sales director for the company.
Over in the Rockies, kettle-cooked Boulder Canyon chips pair their crunchy bite with artisanal seasonings such as red wine vinegar, spinach and artichoke, and balsamic and rosemary.
Down the map in the Southwest, Arizona-based Poore Brothers offers two varieties of kettle-cooked chips with mouth-numbing heat from jalapenos and habaneros.
"People in this region really tend to like this pepper, these stronger, spicier flavors," says Steven Sklar, senior vice president of marketing at Phoenix, Ariz.-based Inventure Foods Inc., which owns the Boulder Canyon and Poore Brothers brands. "You've got a hard bite with a strong flavor. The combination makes a big difference."
While Southerners like spice, industry executives say, the region's traditional chip is thin and flaky. "The southern consumer prefers a lighter, thinner potato chip," says Julie McLaughlin, director of marketing at Birmingham, Ala.-based Golden Flake Snack Foods, which makes Golden Flake Thin & Crispy Potato Chips. The company sells across 10 states in the Southeast, McLaughlin says, and its best-selling chip is "Sweet Heat Barbecue," one of five barbecue varieties it makes. Golden Flake also offers a thick-cut, wavy chip, McLaughlin says, "for the transplants."
And then there are the niche chips, the hyper-local flavors that connect people to their culinary heritage.
In New Orleans, Zapp's makes "Spicy Cajun Crawtaters," designed to mimic the flavor of a seafood boil. Nottingham, Penn.-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, Penn.-based Utz Quality Foods and the Mount Jackson, Va.-chippery Route 11 Potato Chips, crab seasoning is 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. "If I see somebody ordering a lot of crab and they're in Kansas City, we'll call them up to see if they understand what the crab is. Usually they don't, and they're thankful that we called."
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."
But even Frito-Lay plays the regional flavors game. The company began experimenting a decade ago with flavors like "Chicago Steakhouse Loaded Baked Potato," and "San Antonio Salsa." Today, it offers roughly a dozen specialty flavors such as Wavy Au Gratin in the Midwest, Garden Tomato & Basil in the East, and a thick-cut Deli chip for Colorado.
Executives create new flavors by surveying popular items and food trends in the different regions, said Ram Krishnan, Frito-Lay vice president of marketing. But today they also employ Facebook and other social media to crowd source preferences. In contests that have been held around the world, the company invites consumers to suggest new flavors on the company's Facebook page. The current contest, the first in the United States, runs through October 6. Flavors like sautéed onion and ketchup, smoked salmon, and bacon – with anything from cheese to chocolate – have been suggested.
Some flavors that started out as regional specialties – for example, Limon, originally for California – have gained a wider audience.
"What always happens is that a lot of the regional cuisines have expanded and become more mainstream," says Krishnan, suggesting, for instance, that the popularity of Mexican food has helped the "limon" flavor gain fans. "We always find we launch these regional flavors and then they expand."
The company has also experienced a sort of reverse migration. Overseas under various brands, Frito-Lay sells flavors like roast chicken to the British, caviar to Russians, and spicy masala to hungry Indians. Occasionally, these find their way back to the United States: Limon began in Mexico, Krishnan says, and a ketchup-flavored chip now popular in Buffalo, N.Y., began in Canada. In the future, Krishnan says, even more of those overseas flavors are likely to hit the United States to cater to the country's ethnic populations.
"Good ideas come from everywhere, especially when you think about the changing demographics of this country and how multicultural we're becoming," he says. "It's a matter of time."
Doritos Late Night All-Nighter Cheeseburger Flavored Tortilla Chips
OK, technically not a potato chip, but remember the good old days of Doritos Late Night: Tacos at Midnight? For all those times you wanted tacos at midnight but couldn't bother with assembling all the ingredients or getting in the car to head for the Taco Bell drive-thru? Well, here's an additional late-night option, one that does one better by adding "All-Nighter" flavor. That's right, Doritos Late Night All-Nighter Cheeseburger-Flavored Tortilla Chips pack all the flavors of cheese, ketchup, onions, pickles, beef and buns into individual tortilla chips. What could possibly be the ingredients that convey a late-night all-nighter cheeseburger you ask? Onion and garlic powder, Cheddar, Swiss, mustard seed powder and "natural flavors" (including natural beef flavor). The late-night all-nighter flavor (Does that mean it's meant to taste like it's been sitting out under a heat lamp all night or that it's the kind of burger you crave when you're pulling an all-nighter -- a little clarification, please?) must come from the corn maltodextrin and monosodium glutamate. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/10-crazy-potato-chip-flavors-slideshow-4?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>2011's Crazy Chip Flavors</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © itemmaster
Pringles' Grand Canyon French Fries
There's a special category of crazy potato chip flavors, a Twilight Zone of sorts. Let's call it "Incongruous Chip Flavors in the Land of the Lost" — these are "flavors" created with the help of geography and nonexistent culinary icons associated with that place. Take for instance, Pringles' New Yorker's Street Cheese Dog potato chips. New Yorker's Street Dirty Water Dog-flavored potato chips? Yes. New Yorker's Sauerkraut Dirty Water Dog on Stale Bun-flavored chips? Yes. But cheese dogs? No. Same with Pringles' Grand Canyon French Fries. Because there's a famous fry place at the bottom of the canyon by the Colorado River, didn't you know? People risk their lives hiking down there to get those fries. Don't even get started on Pringles' Las Vegas Spareribs potato chips — special Vegas buffet heat lamp flavor. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/top-20-restaurant-views-america-slideshow/?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>Top 20 Restaurant Views in America</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/jetalone/" target="_hplink">Flickr/jetalone</a>
Walkers Chilli and Chocolate Potato Chips
"Chocolate and chile is not crazy," you're saying. "That's not a ridiculous flavor. If you were educated then you'd know that this is a long-treasured, sophisticated flavor pairing that goes back to the Aztecs." Sure, sweet and savory, everyone knows about how great the chocolate and fried potato thing is. But really, you need a whole line of potato chips flavored with chocolate? We highly doubt the Aztecs flavored their potato chips with chocolate, too. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/whats-your-favorite-snacks-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>What's Really in Your Favorite Snacks</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Rebekah Burgess
Pringles' Tropical Chicken
Pringles' Tropical Chicken potato chips beg the question: What exactly is Tropical Chicken flavor? Are we talking jerk or garam masala? Are these jerk chicken potato chips or butter chicken potato chips? Excuse me... um, over here... anyone? <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/10-ways-eat-healthy-when-eating-out-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>10 Ways to Eat Healthy When Dining Out</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/shlaci/" target="_hplink">Flickr/Unfrogged</a>
Doritos Crab Cream Gratin Pizza
Doritos Crab Cream Gratin Pizza, also not technically a potato chip, but definitely an assembly of several unholy flavors. But who knows, it probably tastes amazing. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/most-bizarre-pizza-toppings-slideshow-0?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>Most Bizarre Pizza Toppings</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © no! no capsicum! | by ashes
Pringles' Seaweed Potato Chips
Pringles' Seaweed Potato Chips. Yes, seaweed snacks are eaten all across Asia -- little kids on playgrounds in Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo open up little plastic packets of seaweed strips during recess for tasty snacks. And seaweed's pretty much just salty flavor, so they're probably pretty tasty. But then again, seaweed is supposed to look green. Potato chips not so much. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/how-healthy-are-your-kids-healthy-snacks-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>How Healthy are Your Kids' Healthy Snacks?</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © icantotallymakethat.blogspot.com/Sharon Goh
Marmite Yeast Extract Crisps
You say Marmite Yeast Extract Crisps and you're likely to get a strong reaction from people. Hey, maybe the crisps make the thick, sticky brown paste taste better. One can only hope. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/how-order-french-restaurant-without-sounding-dumb-or-pretentious-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>How to Order at a French Restaurant Like a Pro</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © DebbieDoesDining.com/Deborah Duke
Lay's Hot and Sour Fish Soup-Flavored Potato Chips
It's always good to expand your horizons — sample the flavors and culinary icons of different countries. You never know what you might like. Who knows? Like some others, you might just find yourself falling in love with the amazing flavor of Lay's Hot and Sour Fish Soup-Flavored Potato Chips. Foil-packed fish flavor on a potato chip. Right. Maybe they're good... or maybe you should just go get a bowl of soup. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/10-spiciest-dishes-america-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>10 Spiciest Dishes in America</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Keith Tooth
Pringles' Xtreme Screamin' Dill Pickle
OK, not that a potato chip is going to really taste like a cucumber (right, a cucumber... oh, wait, there's a cucumber potato chip you say?), but pickle-flavored potato chips actually sound pretty tasty. Not content with Lay's Dill Pickle-Flavored Potato Chips, Herr's Creamy Dill Pickle Potato Chips, or Old Dutch Dill Pickle-Flavored Potato Chips, the market demanded something with more pickle flavor, extreme pickle flavor. And thus was born Pringles' Xtreme Screamin' Dill Pickle flavor. Scream, pickle! Scream! <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/food-worlds-secret-vices-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>The Food World's Secret Vices</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/jetalone/" target="_hplink">Flickr/jetalone</a>
Walker's 2010 World Cup Chips
Walkers, a potato crisp (chip) manufacturer in the U.K. (think Lay's) makes a line of flavors just for the World Cup. As the New Times Broward-Palm Beach noted a few years ago, "The special chips celebrate different countries with unique, international chip 'flavours.'" Some of the flavors included among Walkers' 2010 World Cup Chips demonstrate the worst kind of starch confusion: Spanish Chicken Paella, Italian Spaghetti Bolognese and French Garlic Baguette. But perhaps the craziest of all? Australian BBQ Kangaroo. A dingo stole my potato crisp. <em>Related:</em> <a href="http://www.thedailymeal.com/10-candy-bars-youll-never-eat-slideshow?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=crazy%2Bchip%2Bflavors" target="_hplink"><strong>10 Candy Bars You'll Never Eat</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Wire Image