Utz potato chips outsell mighty Lay's in region

November 23, 2005|By STACEY HIRSH | STACEY HIRSH,SUN REPORTER

While most other big cities put national potato chip retailer Lay's at the top of their favorite list, Baltimoreans remain loyal to their regional brand.

Utz leads locally with $28 million in supermarket sales in the Baltimore-Washington area, leaving Lay's in second place with $11 million, according to a Chicago company that studies food trends.

Utz, produced in Hanover, Pa., is among such local favorites as Esskay bacon and Berger Cookies. And in this region, the chip has long been able to outsell Lay's potato chips, the national brand of behemoth Frito-Lay Inc. Lay's has successfully dominated the chip market in other cities throughout the country.

"I think it's a Baltimore thing," says Cathy O'Brien who grew up on Utz and will only buy the brand, "because you can't get Utz everywhere."

In other major markets, including New York, Miami and Los Angeles, Lay's was the top-selling potato chip for the year ending Oct. 30, according to supermarket data released last week by the Information Resources Inc. of Chicago.

Another market where Lay's didn't finish first was Philadelphia, where Herr's, another Pennsylvania potato chip, pulled in the most sales. Herr's ranked fifth in Maryland with supermarket sales of $1.8 million, according to Information Resources' numbers.

"Utz is indeed a Maryland institution and often thought of as a Maryland product," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant supermarkets.

"Its always been a good seller because it's trademarked as a hometown product," Scher said

Maryland food companies Esskay meats and Berger Cookies also do well at Giant supermarkets in the Baltimore area because they're so well-known in the community, Scher said. And spice-maker McCormick & Co. Inc., of Sparks, says that its sales in the Baltimore-Washington region account for 15 percent of all Old Bay products sold in grocery stores nationwide.

National Bohemian (aka Natty Boh) has become such a Maryland-known beer that Todd Unger has made a business of selling products with the drink's logo on it, even though the suds haven't been brewed in Baltimore since1996.

Unger, who runs the Web site nattybohgear.com as well as a store in Fells Point and kiosks at four local malls, sells several products bearing the Natty Boh logo, including hats, mugs and bumper stickers.

Most of Unger's customers are from Maryland. "It's just part of Baltimore," Unger said. "The beer of Baltimore is Natty Boh."

There are many local brands that consumers are familiar with and that have been around long before the age of "megabrands," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic a Chicago food industry-consulting company. And there's still a lot of loyalty to these brands, he said.

The potato-chip business, for instance, has a history of being an industry where local favorites ruled and many markets had strong local brands.

But Frito-Lay has gained huge market share, and many of the regional brands have struggled, Goldin said.

"It's a tough competitive landscape when you're up against Frito," Goldin said. "I think Utz is one that just has managed to stay focused, locally connected, with the market."

Utz holds more than 50 percent of the potato chip market in the Baltimore Washington area, delivering the chips along 84 routes in the greater Baltimore area and more than 100 routes across the state, said Gary Laabs, vice president of human resources for Utz Quality Foods Inc.

John Nichols, who owns Steve's Lunch counter in Federal Hill's Cross Street Market estimates that he sells more than 300 pounds of Utz potato chips each week from his South Baltimore business.

Loyal customers like Vineca Harrison, 54, say the company has been a mainstay throughout the years. As a teenager, Harrison would often snack on Utz and a soda. Today, the Baltimore native still buys the chips and shares them with her grandsons - well, sometimes.

"I have to hide them sometimes when they come over," she said. "If I take a big bag home, they'd be gone."

stacey.hirsh@baltsun.com

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