Here in the Big Easy, it’s all about the spice. From po-boys to potato chips, the proper seasoning is essential. So little wonder that our favorite chip comes in a variety of tastebud-tantalizing flavors, with imaginative names like Spicy Cajun Crawtator, Voodoo, and Cajun Dill Gator-Tators – along with the old standbys like Regular, Jalapeno, Salt and Vinegar, and Mesquite Bar-B-Que, among others.
“New Orleans is probably our largest market,” Rod Olson, president of Zapp’s Potato Chips, tells me. “We sell more chips in the French Quarter than Frito-Lay does. Po-boys and Zapp’s go together; muffalettas at Central Grocery and Zapp’s go together.”
Zapp’s processes about 120,000 pounds of spuds and fries them in nearly 8,000 pounds of a peanut oil blend each day. The potatoes are sliced thicker than most chips and go right into the fryer.
“The key to that is you load all these wet potato slices [into the fryer] in less than a minute,” according to Olson. “That drops the temperature of the oil, and it’s that temperature drop that creates the curl, the crunch, and the flavor is basically from the peanut oil blend.”
“It’s the best-tasting chip made,” Olson claims. “And that’s the mouthfeel and the taste that derives from the peanut oil. And then the seasonings on them, none of them are cheap. They’re selected because they taste good, and as much as possible we try to have interesting flavor combinations.”
Ron Zappe founded Zapp’s Chips in 1985 after his oil-field equipment business tanked, along with the price of crude oil in the early ‘80s. He converted an empty car dealership in St. James Parish into a chippery, installing two small fryers and a packaging machine in the former showroom. Ron passed away in 2010, and Rod Olson – who started with the company its first year as the New Orleans distributor – became president.
At the beginning, Zapp’s produced only regular and jalapeno-flavored chips, but before long, Ron Zappe developed a recipe with spices reminiscent of a crawfish boil. He called the new flavor Spicy Cajun Crawtator, and today it’s one of the company’s best-selling varieties.
Over the years, the company has added flavors, some more popular than others.
“We did a Key Lime flavor … that was one of our most limited editions,” says Olson. “And twice we’ve done pizza flavors that just haven’t taken.”
But the company still gets requests for past favorites like Honey Mustard, Bacon and Cheddar, and even Sizzling Steak. And the newest limited edition – Baby Back Rib (!) – will be hitting store shelves this week.
And Zapp’s is currently phasing in packaging with styling cues emphasizing its Crescent City connection. The updated design features a French Quarter-style signpost, with the package’s distinctive bright, vertical stripes embedded with a subtle fleur-de-lis design. The new tagline reads, “New Orleans Kettle Style.”
Take my advice, and get thee to a chippery. Zapp’s doesn’t offer public factory tours, but you can buy the chips throughout Louisiana, and in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle, as well as online and through mail order.
Or head to a parade this Carnival season — Zapp’s chips joined the list of edible throws in 1991, when the Krewe of Mid-City first tossed them in 1-ounce bags stamped with the krewe’s name. Other krewes have joined suit, and Zapp’s makes purple-and-gold bags for the season.
Rod Olson’s advice?
“Buy more chips!” he says cheerfully. “We’ll make more; it’s Mardi Gras!”
Zapp’s Potato Chips:
Glen Abbott is a New Orleans-based freelance travel writer/photographer. Visit his blog at www.TravelinGringo.com.