PHILADELPHIA -- They are the hottest thing in snack food since those annoying little raisins, these Home Boys -- cute, cool and unshakable, hanging out without causing trouble, smart but decent, well-grounded and well-dressed, gracing the front of the Chumpies Potato Chip bag with a certain urban savoir-faire.
The girls know.
They flood the nondescript warehouse that is home to Home Boys Distributors with phone calls: "Can I speak to Kareem? Can I speak to Eric? Can I speak to Rafael?"
"We get calls all day long," said president and longtime potato-chip distributor Jerry Ridgley, standing near a box full of the grape-colored bags of chips.
"We get letters from kids who say they like the package and they're going to do better in school," his partner, Samir Muhammad, said. "We're reaching them."
Chumpies Potato Chips, starring the Home Boys, have struck a chord with teen-agers across Philadelphia since arriving in mom-and-pop stores throughout the city in October.
These are not just chips. These are chips with a message: Drugs are not cool.
Mr. Muhammad said the company distributed 10,000 cases a week to area stores. Children love them. Parents love them. Teachers love them. Mr. Muhammad has a stack of letters to prove it.
Vanessa Habershaw, a teacher at Newlin Fell School, wrote to tell company officials that her class used the packages in their Black History Month display.
"We really enjoyed the product," she said in an interview. "It was very inspiring. And the children really got into the clothes and the Home-Boy look."
Home Boys does not make the Chumpies potato chips. They are RTC custom-manufactured by another company in western Pennsylvania to Mr. Ridgley's specifications, then packaged and shipped to Philadelphia for distribution.
Mr. Ridgley, a longtime member of the Philadelphia snack-food industry, was president of the now-defunct Don Pepe Potato Chips and claims to be the first African-American potato-chip distributor in the country.
Home Boys Distributors are not associated with the company that distributes the Georgie Woods Potato Chips, which feature the picture of the noted Philadelphia African-American radio personality. Rather, In fact, the two companies are fierce competitors.
When Don Pepe folded in 1989, Mr. Ridgley joined forces with Mr. Muhammad to produce and distribute Muhammad Ali Potato Chips, in homage to the Great One. On Halloween last year, the first Chumpies bags hit the stores.
Mr. Ridgley said the Chumpies product was about reaching children with a message of self-respect and avoiding drugs. That and tasting good. And, of course, making a profit.
"Yeah, it sells potato chips," he said. But "it's not a gimmick. It's the way we feel.
"Our community is so under siege with drugs," Mr. Ridgley said. "We want to throw our hats into the ring and be part of the solution."
The Home Boys drawn on the front of the bag are a diverse threesome: Kareem, who carries a basketball and sports the number 12 on his jersey, is African-American; Rafael, dressed in baggy pants and a baseball cap with "HBoys" on the front, is Hispanic, and Eric, the Home Boy with sunglasses and a boombox, is white.
On the back of the bag, the producers extol the "home boys" of the past who went on to become the pride of inner-city neighborhoods -- "doctors, lawyers, ministers and even police."
"We salute the Home Boys of the past, and dedicate ourselves to taking back the corner of today, from the dealers of drugs," the package reads.
Coming later this month, Home Girls, starring three hip chicks with a message.
"Home Girls will talk about a lot of moral things," Mr. Muhammad said. "We'll be telling the young girls to keep their virginity.
"We want them to tell the young boys, 'No ring. No thing.' "
Mr. Ridgley and Mr. Muhammad have hired several young men from the neighborhood. One of them, Larry Bilaly, has been named vice president of marketing and promotion at the age of 23.
Mr. Bilaly will help oversee the company's plans to expand the Home Boy theme into a line of clothes, a comic book and even a singing group of real, live home boys that will go into schools to talk about sex, drugs and being cool.
"We're very serious about this," Mr. Muhammad said. "Our game plan is to come in and change the moral fiber of our young people."
Already the chips have touched at least one young person. In a letter to Chumpies, a teen-age girl wrote this:
"Your product, Chumpies potato chips, is so good. When you put one in, you can't stop eating them. I hope soon you will have a fan club.
"P.S. Kareem, Eric, Rafael, I would like to say hi."