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Chips Ahoy

Sam Holden
Small Fry: Sarah Cohen samples the merchandise at her Route 11 Potato Chips factory.

By Michael Yockel | Posted 2/26/2003

"You gotta hear this," Sarah Cohen says with a grin, inserting a disc into the CD player behind the counter at Route 11 Potato Chips' factory/retail outlet. She punches in the 14th--and final--track on the Washington-based Rhodes Tavern Troubadours' On the Red Line, and from the speakers pours a 45-second truck-driving ditty fueled by rolling drums and twangy guitars: "Man oh man/ That's one heck of a chip/ Tastes so big/ Yeah, I don't need no dip/ Riding down the road to potato chip heaven/ Me and a big old bag of Route 11s"--at which point a mock-radiofied voice enters to note winkingly, "That's Route 11 Potato Chips, Middletown, Virginia."

The kicky endorsement signifies the wry, DIY esthetic that pervades the entire Route 11 operation, from the saucy artwork on its bag of Mama Zuma's Revenge Habanero chips to the factory's zippy potato-head sign to the garden rakes used to stir and submerge the chips as they cook.

Slightly thicker, abundantly crunchier, and decidedly less salty than the products manufactured by behemoths of the industry such as Lay's, Wise, and Utz, Route 11 has established a distinctive niche in the highly competitive snack-food business over the course of its 11-year existence. "Our chips have a lot more character than the mass-produced varieties," claims the 38-year-old Cohen, the company's high priestess and director of sales and marketing.

Primarily, that "character" can be attributed to the handcrafted nature of Route 11's chip-making process, a sort of modern-day Rube Goldberg-looking assembly line that sends the spuds, consecutively, through a de-stoner, peeler, and slicer before they're deposited into twin 150-pounds-per-hour cookers, where they bob and weave while being manually raked for five to six minutes, after which they're strained and passed along to seasoning tables (Lightly Salted, Barbeque, Sour Cream and Chive, etc.), then, finally, popped into bags on a machine that resembles a newspaper press.

"We use the traditional method of batch cooking," Cohen explains, "while most mass producers use continuous frying methods." In the latter, thinly sliced chips trundle along a conveyer belt through superheated, hydrogenated oil--"really nasty stuff," Cohen says, wrinkling her nose, "it's what clogs up your arteries"--for 30 to 45 seconds. Conversely, batch cooking occurs at a lower temperature in vats of high-quality peanut oil and/or high monounsaturated sunflower oil--"three to four times more expensive than what a Lay's or Utz might use," Cohen points out--allowing the Route 11 chips to emerge "with a lot more crunch and flavor."

Cohen launched Route 11--part of her family's business interests, which include the venerable Tabard Inn, a boutique hotel in Washington, D.C.--in 1992 in a former feed store on (where else?) Route 11 in tiny Middletown, Va., located in the jagged northern corner of the state. Previously, she had worked on an oyster farm in Washington state and for a D.C. filmmaker. (Those two endeavors coalesced in the 1992 11-minute Spanish-language film Oyster Guanaca Cohen made with a friend, which screened at last year's first annual Slow Food film festival in Italy and was inspired by an El Salvadoran dishwasher at the Tabard. "It's all about the pleasure of food," she says.)

By 1997 the Route 11 operation was still far shy of the break-even point. Five years of research and experimentation making gourmet chips had placed Cohen at a career crossroads.

"I thought, I don't have any clue what I'm going to do with my life. Of course, I didn't have any idea what I was doing before the potato chips," she recalls with a laugh. "I kept wondering, Am I doing the right thing? This is insane. And I was embarrassed to tell people that I made potato chips, because they'd look at me and go, 'What are you talking about?' But I decided I might as well keep going, figuring it would be too karmically bad to walk away from something that was about to bud."

So she plowed ahead, moving the bulk of the operation into a new, adjacent structure, while gradually augmenting her stable of chips to include Chesapeake Crab, Taro, No Salt, Dill Pickle, Salt and Vinegar, Sweet Potato, and Mixed Vegetables (beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, taro root, purple potatoes, and, occasionally, heirloom potatoes--with each vegetable cooked separately, then hand-mixed). "People expect you to have a line of chips," she says. Over time, the business grew, and now employs 18 people, with $1.6 million in yearly sales.

Cohen says Route 11 chips have rolled out on a retail level into 22 states--from California to Eddie's and Graul's supermarkets in Baltimore. Her chips also appear on plates in a handful of tony D.C. restaurants, as well as at upscale delis and sundry au courant outlets in the greater Washington metro area. Cohen, meanwhile, schemes of world domination in the form of two- and six-ounce bags, ultimately bringing her chips into convenience stores.

For now, though, unless you schlep to Route 11's Middletown mothership connection to buy wholesale, expect to pay a bit more than normal for its chips. "I don't feel like people have to spend their savings in order to afford a bag," Cohen contends. "It's still pocket change."

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