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    Route 11 Potato Chips finds success as a cult favorite

    Being a small fry can have its advantages.

    Take the Route 11 brand of sweet potato chips.

    The snack-food giants — Frito-Lay and such — haven’t taken up the challenge of this more fragile of the tubers, which tends to caramelize and burn during mass production.

    But for a snack food maker that’s used to taking its time, this is a sweet and profitable niche.

    Welcome to the world of Route 11 Potato Chips, a small Virginia chippery that has been cooking up Kettle-style cult favorites for more than 20 years.

    Today, the crew at its industrial plant in Mount Jackson is busy churning out 600 pounds an hour of sweet potatoes. They are grown regionally, slow cooked in a mixture of peanut and sunflower oils and lightly seasoned with unrefined salt from an ancient Utah salt bed.

    The company touts the chip’s other virtues: non-GMO certified, nutritious and tasty.

    “Our focus, from Day One, was to make a potato chip that’s just better than the rest,” says Sarah Cohen, Route 11’s owner. “We’re making the same exact potato chip that we started with 20 years ago. When we started, we were a 60-pound-per-hour producer. When we came here, we made it to 600 pounds an hour. We know we’re small. Frito-Lay is like 600,000 pounds an hour.”

    Frito-Lay, based in Texas, dominates the market, but smaller companies — Route 11, Utz, Martin’s Potato Chips and Zapp’s — hold their own by catering to regional tastes.

    Last summer Ben & Jerry’s partnered with Route 11 Potato chips for a promotional ice cream flavor called Capitol Chill, which featured the sweet potato chips as a garnish.

    “Route 11 Potato Chips was chosen because they make a hell of a product and do so in a very thoughtful way,” said Sean Greenwood, a Ben &Jerry’s spokesman, noting that their sustainable practices were considered a big plus. “And when we paired their sweet potato chip with our chocolate base, our flavor gurus said, ‘Sweeeeet!’ “