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."