Though thin and flat may be the national standard of the potato chip in the United States, regional and sometimes hyper-local preferences for different calibers of crunch, thickness, seasonings and endless other elements have created a surprisingly diverse culinary patchwork of chip styles around the country.
That's right — the chips you nosh in the Northeast could be wildly different than those savored in the South.
Midwesterners, for example, prefer a thicker, more substantial chip. Big, hearty chips also sell well in New England and the Rockies, though in the latter area those progressive mountain folk want theirs with artisanal seasonings. Southerners love barbecue flavor, chip industry executives say, but it needs to be sprinkled on thin, melt-in-your-mouth chips.
Southwestern states predictably go for bold and spicy. Local flavors — such as New Orleans Cajun and Mid-Atlantic crab seasoning — find their way onto chips in those places. And people all across the country, it seems, love a curly, shattering kettle chip.
"People like the potato chip they grew up with," says Jim McCarthy, chief executive officer at the Rosslyn, Va.-based Snack Food Association, a trade group that represents the many denizens of convenience store shelves. "There's a very strong brand recognition and brand loyalty to the chip you grew up with."
Potato chips are America's number one snack, according to the group's 2012 state of the industry report, and we spent $9 billion on them in 2010, 50 percent more than what we spent on the No. 2 snack, tortilla chips. More than half of those sales go to Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay North America, whose original thin, crispy chip is the top-seller. But hometown styles still claim their territory.
And then there are the niche chips, the hyper-local flavors that connect people to their culinary heritage...