By: Jenny Tolep
How far would you drive for a bag of potato chips?
In Virginia, Route 11 Potato Chip factory attracts people traveling from California, Arizona or Hawaii. Company owner Sarah Cohen likes to think it’s the unique ingredients and methods that draw customers from afar. Visitors can try each chip flavor and watch the production process.
Cohen opened Route 11 in 1992. It all began when Cohen’s father bought a chip factory in Maryland as an extension of the family’s hotel and restaurant. As soon as the factory lease was up, Cohen moved to Middletown, Va., opened a new factory and named her brand Route 11 Potato Chips.
The company started off small, with a 60-pound per hour potato cooker inside an old feed store.
“We wanted to make something special, a chip that had character,” said Cohen.
The chips contain no trans fat and most of the flavors are gluten free.
The feed store was set up so customers could watch the process, as well as purchase freshly cooked chips. Soon enough, Route 11 became a popular tourist attraction in Virginia.
As Route 11 grew in popularity, the company created more flavors, got new machinery and eventually moved to a larger factory in Mount Jackson.
“The best part is just knowing you’re actually producing, from start to finish, a good product. It makes you feel legitimate,” said Mike Connelly, the vice president and engineer.
Route 11 currently has nine flavors. The top seller is Lightly Salted followed by Sweet Potato, both made with an unrefined sea salt.
“We wanted our flavors to be all natural and not taste synthetic, the way a lot of flavors in the snack world taste,” said Cohen.
Dill Pickle is a flavor that has gotten national attention, appearing in Southern Living and Oprah magazines. It tastes as if just the right amount of pickle juice were drizzled onto your potato chips at a deli.
Another unique flavor, Chesapeake Crab, is the slowest seller but has the most devout followers. The chip has a spicy kick and tastes like blue crab.
“We have people drive from Baltimore to get it,” said Cohen.
Chesapeake Crab is nostalgic in a way, reminding Cohen of crab feasts she enjoyed in the mid-Atlantic region.
Frequently, people send in flavor requests. Many people request ketchup or salt and pepper chips, while others crave martini or peanut butter and jelly chips.
But no matter the flavor, the production process is always the same.
The first step is growing “chipping” potatoes, which are dense and have less water than regular grocery store potatoes.
One of Route 11’s potato farmers is Clifford Rohrer, who has worked with the company for two years.
Rohrer is new to potato farming and learning through trial and error.
“The longer you grow, the less you know,” he said with a laugh.
Rohrer frequently checks on his crop and looks for disease or dryness. The potatoes are regularly watered and take about 110 days to grow.
In the factory, a salty aroma fills the air and there is a loud echo of machinery. Twelve production workers, all in hair and beard nets, are stationed along the conveyer belt.
“It’s like a kitchen job on steroids,” said Cohen.
The potatoes are first washed and weighed. They go into a “de-stoner” where any rocks that snuck in are taken out.
Next the potatoes tumble through the peeler, stripping 50 pounds in 20 seconds. All the peelings and bad chips go to neighboring farmer, Ken Burch, to help feed his cattle.
Burch says Route 11 helps save him money by giving him the peels and waste every day the factory runs.
Potatoes then move along the conveyer belt and are inspected by a worker who looks for embedded rocks and cuts large potatoes in half. Production Supervisor Josh Kerrisk explains that a large potato jams the machinery and generally does not make a good chip.
Once the potatoes reach the slicer, they are aligned single file. The slicer has eight razor–sharp blades and cuts five to 10 potatoes at a whack.
Next, 100 pounds of sliced potatoes fall immediately into hot sunflower oil. The oil is low in saturated fat and light in flavor, allowing one to fully taste the chips. The potatoes are stirred in the cooker for five to six minutes and a vapor cloud rises.
“The oil is displacing the water in the potatoes,” said Cohen.
Once cooked, chips ride on a conveyer belt toward two production workers. They take out any chips that are too raw, burnt, green or thin.
“If the chips aren’t up to quality, they go to the cows,” said Cohen.
The chips go up an incline and are hand-salted and seasoned.
To come up with the seasonings, Cohen spent hours in a seasoning lab working with professionals to craft the perfect flavors.
Kerrisk said, “I am continually walking through and asking people how the chips taste.”
After seasoning, a scale weighs the chips, putting two ounces in each bag. Then two production workers pack the bags into boxes.
Glass windows separate the production area from the viewing room, where visitors watch the potato chip making process.
For Susan Garrahan, visiting Route 11 was the nice way to spend her birthday. With most chip brands being produced on a gargantuan automate scale, if Garrahan were given the choice, she would always choose Route 11.
At the factory, customers and employees are always encouraged to grab and handful and taste.