A Super Bowl of chips

Munching: During the big game, it's likely that those salty snacks being consumed by Ravens fans came from southern Pennsylvania, `Snack Food Capital of the World.'

January 26, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

The road from Hanover, Pa., to Baltimore is paved with potato chips -- plain and wavy, fried in cottonseed oil, lard and olestra, and dusted in three kinds of orange barbecue seasoning, Carolina, honey and red hot.

Every morning before 7 a.m., a small convoy of 80 Utz Quality Foods route vans bearing the likeness of the apple-cheeked "Little Utz Girl" makes the 40-mile trek to Baltimore, delivering snacks to stores, supermarket chains and farmers' markets, and to people like Anita Wilkinson, who wouldn't dream of eating any other brand.

"Utz is it," declared Wilkinson as she stood in Cross Street Market this week dressed in a Baltimore Ravens sweat shirt and toasting the American Football Conference champions with a plastic cup filled with Coors Light.

"Lays and all that other stuff aren't as good," said Wilkinson, 54, who owns the Old Lighthouse Inn on Light Street and lives in Fullerton. "They just don't taste the same."

Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, it's likely the bowls of potato chips, pretzels, corn chips, popcorn and other salty snacks Baltimore-area fans will be munching were made in Hanover or a nearby Pennsylvania town, an area that bills itself as "The Snack Food Capital of the World." Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest snack-food sales days of the year, eclipsed only by the Fourth of July, Labor Day and New Year's Eve.

Dozens of snack food manufacturers are in York, Berks and Lancaster counties in south-central Pennsylvania. In addition to Utz, there's Snyder's of Hanover in Hanover (the region's No. 1 pretzel maker and the country's No. 2 pretzel company) and Herr Foods Inc. in Nottingham (No. 3 in potato chips regionally). Other manufacturers include Martin's Potato Chips in Thomasville, Bickel's Potato Chips in Manheim and Snyder of Berlin in Berlin.

York County's convention and visitor's bureau promotes the "Snack Food Capital" claim on its Web site, although bureau President Ann Druck acknowledged that she's uncertain where the title originated.

"This is it right here," said J. M. Herr, president of Herr's, a $100 million snack food company his father founded in 1946.

"Some people say it's the most competitive market in the country," said Herr, a former Snack Food Association president. "That's probably true because of the number of players."

Frito-Lay, makers of Ruffles and Lays, might make the most popular chip in the nation, but in the Baltimore-Washington region, Utz is king. Nobody sells more potato chips.

Utz potato chips had 53 percent of the market share and more than $28.6 million in sales in supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington region last year, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago market research company that tracks the industry. By comparison, Frito-Lay, which has 66 percent of the national potato chip market share, has 36 percent of the market share in Baltimore-Washington and $19.7 million in regional sales.

In supermarkets in New York -- Giants country -- Utz potato chips are fourth in sales; Lays is No. 1.

"You could think of Lays and Utz as a Super Bowl of potato chips every single day," said Lynn Markley, spokeswoman for Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay, which has manufacturing plants in Aberdeen and York, Pa.

3.5 billion chips

Speaking of the Super Bowl, last year Americans ate about 11.8 million pounds of potato chips -- some 3.5 billion individual chips -- during the big game, according to the Snack Food Association. Potato chips are the most popular Super Bowl snack and the most popular snack food in the mid-Atlantic region in general, the association said.

But what about Utz? Why, with so many potato chips to choose from -- regionally and nationally -- do the ones made by the Hanover company get munched in Baltimore more than any brand?

Standing on the floor of the frying room of the 550,000-square-foot Hanover factory where Utz churns out 14,000 pounds of potato chips every day, Gary Laabs offered his opinion by holding out a handful of chips straight from the fryer.

The chips were golden and tasted like warm, salt-covered, potato-scented air. Like heaven. Like home. "It's the flavor," Laabs, Utz's vice president of human resources, said as he popped a chip into his mouth. "They love our chips."

Utz didn't invent potato chips; George Crum did. In 1853, Crum, a cook at Moon's Lake House, a resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., created the snack when a customer, reportedly railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, sent back an order of fried potatoes, complaining that they were cut "too thick," according to the Snack Food Association. Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes paper-thin, tossed them in hot oil and fried them to a crisp. "Saratoga chips" became a fad among patrons of the inn, and the recipe spread.

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