To survive the cold days of winter, consumers traditionally turn to an array of comfort foods. This year, however, they no longer need a crock pot or an oven. That’s because potato and tortilla chip producers are putting comfort in a bag.

By Marina Mayer

In today’s depressing economic times, consumers are searching for comfort food to ease the pain. Except now, it doesn’t involve some home-cooked grub.

    Rather, potato and tortilla chip manufacturers are making it easy by filling the snack aisle with a plethora of new products that are transforming the way Americans snack.

    These new varieties are bringing a certain calmness to the snacking occasion because they contain healthier ingredients. In other cases, they’re adding comfort with a twist by introducing more exotic products that still taste like potato chips, even though there’s not one iota of potato in them.

    Late last year, for example, The Unique Food Group Ltd. in Auckland, New Zealand brought Joseph Banks Cassava Chips to the United States. The company became the latest natural food producer to roll out these gourmet, all-natural chips, which are made from thin slices of cassava root lightly cooked in oil and come in Original Sea Salt, Roasted Tomato, Chili & Lime and Cracked Pepper varieties. The vegan snacks also are completely free of cholesterol, trans fat, gluten, lactose and any genetic modifications, notes Chris Johnson, the company’s chief executive officer.

    “Our ethos is to develop snack foods that are irresistibly delicious and made from natural ingredients from the Asia Pacific region,” he explains. “By innovating a staple food found in many developing countries, we have something new to offer consumers. It not only fits the profile of a food [consumers] already enjoy, ‘potato chips,’ but also gives them a new and healthier eating experience with an exciting range of flavors.”

    Closer to home, Brewster, Ohio-based Shearer’s Foods’ new Kettle-Cooked, extra crunchy potato chips come in a standard Original flavor, as well as Hot Pepper Trio that delivers a medley of spicy heat and rich peppers, and a Sweet Barbeque variety that combines indulgent notes of brown sugar and molasses with a tangy, tomato base and a slightly smoky overtone.

    Not to be outdone, Kettle Foods, Inc. continues to expand its Kettle Brand line by rolling out its Sweet Onion chips made with simmering onions and crispy real potatoes while its more conventional Sea Salt & Vinegar variety contains a splash of tangy vinegar with a sprinkle of sea salt. Both products carry on the “Natural Promise” claim, which means they’re made with all-natural seasonings and contain no trans fat, MSG, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and are made with all-natural seasonings.

    In March, Kettle Foods will release a Jalapeño variety in 2-oz., grab-and-go bags, says Julie Dunmire, brand director for the Salem, Ore.-based company. The new product will add a bit of spice to the comapny’s most popular varieties.

    “In times like these when consumers seek out comfort foods, perennial favorites are sought after,” she says.

Taking on New Shapes

While Americans love potato chips, the tortilla chip category also has continued to flourish with the release of better-for-you, whole grain chips.

    For instance, Los Angeles-based Corazonas Foods, Inc. introduced in October, Whole Grain Tortilla Chips in Lightly Salted and Squeeze of Lime flavors. These reduced-sodium chips provide other key health benefits such as 18 g. of whole grains and 3 g. of fiber per serving. They’re also made with heart-healthy, high-oleic canola oil.

    “Better-for-you snack foods are experiencing strong growth in the category,” says Matt Buckley, executive vice president of sales. “We anticipate the new Whole Grain Tortilla Chips to quickly become one of our top-selling products as it delivers against the consumer’s desire for healthier whole grain, gluten-free snacking options.”

    In January, Truco Enterprises, maker of On the Border products, rolled out Southwest Thins Tortilla Chips that are lightly seasoned with the Dallas-based company’s proprietary Southwest seasoning. The gluten-free snacks have been formulated to eliminate trans fats, cholesterol, preservatives, MSG and artificial flavors and colorings.

    The On the Border brand is in a unique position by not only providing consumers with a restaurant brand in the home, but also a psychological boost for people who want the high quality of a restaurant at a lower price, says David Silver, the company’s president.

    Some snack producers are rolling out tortilla chips in shapes that make it easier to dip and simpler to eat. Late last year, for instance, Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay brought out its Tostitos Scoops, which now come in its newest variety, a Hint of Jalapeño flavor. This bite-sized, bowl-shaped chip is made with 100% white corn and a dash of jalapeño spice.

    More recently at the start of the New Year, Shearer’s Foods came out with its Shapers Whole Grain chips that offer snack eaters 18 to 19 g. of whole grains per serving and contain less fat per serving than many other salted snacks. The products, which come in Sea Salt, Cheddar, Black Bean & Salsa and Cinnamon, offer a square shape like a cracker but also contain chip-like ridges.

    “Shapers chips complement the important consumer effort to snack in moderation while maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle,” says Paul Smith, director of marketing and product management. “Some consumers have compared [Shapers] to a cracker while others to a multigrain tortilla chip. The answer is that they really are somewhere in between the two classifications.”

    Shearer’s also introduced Tangos tortilla chips, which are now re-positioned as “The Crunch of the Party” and available in Multigrain, Cantina Style and Cheese Nacho varieties. In many ways, the Tangos line marks a significant departure from how Shearer’s has sold its products over the years.

    “Traditionally, all Shearer’s owned brand product had been marketed under our Shearer’s brand name,” Smith says. “We felt that our tortilla [chips] might be losing out on an opportunity to stay on top of shoppers’ minds. To address this concern, we increased visibility and brought clarity to our product positioning by transitioning the Shearer’s namesake brand away from our tortilla products and promoting them under a new brand name.”

    To expand its already established better-for-you line of snacks, Natural Snacks rolled out Michael Season’s Baked Multigrain Chips. These wheat-and gluten-free snacks come in Original, Cheddar and Honey Chipotle and boast 12 g. of whole grains in each serving.

    “Consumers want their food to supply them with extra benefits, [such as] Omega 3-added supplies, servings of whole grains, etc.,” says Christine Brown, marketing manager for the Addison, Ill.-based company. “Our focus is to offer a healthy snack alternative.”

    Likewise, the chip maker also introduced its all-natural Whole Grain Blue and Whole Grain White tortilla chips under its Mexi-Snax brand. Each bag contains six servings of whole grains.

Some Not-So-Comforting Thoughts

Despite the flurry of new product introductions, potato and tortilla chip manufacturers continue to face a bevy of financial challenges.

    That’s because snack producers are still dealing with the ramifications of fluctuating commodity prices even months after the markets apparently settled down.

    Take Truco Enterprises for example, which uses corn in all its tortilla chips.

    “Even though the market might come down, we’re still faced with [the fixed price of corn],” notes Dawn Grosvenor, vice president of marketing. “We’re faced with market pressures and endure the higher prices, so that is by far the largest challenge we face.”

    Silver says another significant challenge is providing the market with the freshest of products possible.

    “Everything we do starts with the consumer’s stomach and moves back [through the supply chain],” he explains. “What we would like to do is get our chips in the mouths and stomachs of our consumers within one hour of when we bake them. It won’t happen, but it’s an objective.”

    To keep consumers coming back to the salted snack aisle, companies like Kettle Foods constantly search for ways to expand their new product portfolios.

    “Kettle Brand has long been known for innovative flavors, but this means branching out beyond the obvious cheese, sea salt and vinegar and barbeque flavors and trying to bring true innovation to the category,” Dunmire says. “We’re always searching for tasty combinations that work on crunchy slices of potato.”

    Additionally, it’s not always a picnic in the park for mid-size and regional manufacturers to acquire shelf space in supermarket aisles, especially when introducing new products to broaden their brands.

    “With limited resources,” Buckley notes, “smaller players have to be more creative to gain distribution since the dominate player isn’t willing to give up shelf space to let these new players in the category.”

    Moreover, a retailers’ commitment to private label can prevent some companies from expanding their presence in the snack aisle or even getting their products into some customers’ stores, Brown says.

    “One of our challenges is getting space in line, and one of the growing challenges is private label,” she adds. “Retail wants to dedicate more space to their private label.”

    Despite these challenges that potato and tortilla chip makers face, today’s companies are persistent in bringing consumers the wholesome new products that they crave. Besides, a little bit of comfort food goes a long way, especially when it comes in the form of a delicately crunchy chip. 


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