Sunday, April 24, 2016

The New South: Route 11 Potato Chips

If you like to take a short break from dodging the 18 wheelers that seem to be vehicle of choice on I-81 and are in the vicinity of New Market, VA, --or if you prefer to be more exact Virginia Exit 269--there cannot be a better place to stop than the Route 11 Potato Chips factory. While I wouldn’t exactly call myself a potato chip aficionado, I do have a favorite kind—Herr’s Kettle Cooked. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the brand I would never, ever buy if they were the last potato chips on earth—Middleswarth. Horrible stuff.
Though not a potato chip enthusiast (do you get the sense that I’m protesting too much?), yes,  I have been on a potato chip factory tour. As that famous needlepoint pillow on Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s sofa said, “It’s only kinky the first time”.  Oh wait, I think might have been Dr. Ruth Westheimer. They’re so easily confused!

So, way back in August 1998, my friend Martha and I took the tour of the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory. This was before the days of photo documentation of every breath we take, so you have to talk my word for it. Actually, we hit both the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory in Hyannis AND Cranberry World in nearby Plymouth on the same day. Nothing says a Cape Cod vacation like industrial food tours, no?

According to the website for Cape Cod Potato chips, 250,000 people visit the factory annually. That’s 50,000 more visitors than the not-so-distant John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum gets each year. Ask not what your potato chip can do for you, but what you can do for your potato chip. Or something like that.

The highlight of the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory tour was the chart on the wall of the factory that illustrated what defective potato chips look like. Someplace in the chip making process—the details are hazy—eagle-eyed chip snatchers would consult the chart and then would reach onto the chip conveyor belt and snatch the green or brown or malformed or whatever chips before they were sealed in a bag, ready to be shipped to chip heads across the country.

I’m not sure what they were supposed to do if a chip contained the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary or even Jesus himself…well, now that Rose Kennedy is dead, I mean. I’m pretty sure she had a standing order for those down the road at the Kennedy Compound. Nothing impresses visiting Democratic pols like potato chips bearing the image of the B.V.M.

But back to The Route 11 Potato Chips factory. If you are channeling your inner Lewis and Clark on a day that Sacagawea calls in sick, you can still find it with your GPS at coordinates latitude N38.71968° longitude W78.66240°.  However, I found it the old fashioned, analog way, by seeing a sign on the Interstate.

Startled as I was, I still had time to gather my thoughts and wax poetic saying “Holy crap Pam, we gotta go!

Since we were in the wrong lane we went one exit too far, turned around and went back, taking Exit 269, just as the sign told us to. We hung a right at Stonewall Jackson High School, home of The Rebels (seriously), and drove into what looked like an abandoned industrial park. Just before we gave up hope, Route 11 Potato Chips appeared on our left.

Once we parked in the nearly deserted parking lot, we couldn’t figure out which door to use. These chip folks are not so big on what they used to call in architecture school, the “entrance sequence”. Was the door on the left, or the one on the right, near the picnic table for smoking employees? We reasoned that the smoking employees would be at the back door of the factory, not the front. Wrong. 

If Cape Cod Potato chips gets 250,000 visitors a year, my guess is that Route 11 chips gets 2,500. It wasn’t a high volume sort of experience, even if Route 11 is self-described as “one of America’s premiere specialty chip producers”.

The very nice chip docent slash gift shop clerk invited us to sample the chips artfully displayed in plastic baskets at various locations in the gift shop while she rang up merch for the other customers. There’s a lot of merch in the gift shop, and when I’m in the mood for a potato chip themed t-shirt, I will be sure to hurry back.

When the clerk had finished with her customers, she invited us over to a window that separated the gift shop from the factory. I was hoping for the old fashioned kind of factory tour where you walk out onto the factory floor, but alas, Route 11 Potato Chips is factory tour as human sized ant farm.

We stood on a platform so that we could get a better look at the gleaming stainless steel potato chip machines as the docent went into her brief spiel.  She told us that the machines slice 100 lbs of potatoes in 42 seconds and then they’re dropped off the end of a conveyor belt into hot sunflower seed oil to cook. When they’re reached just the right degree of crispness, they come out of the oil and go up a conveyor belt nicknamed “The Giraffe” to the second floor of the factory where highly trained technicians dust them with the seasoning du jour.

We were able to see this part of the process from viewing windows at the gift shop's mezzanine level. (Thank you Washington Post for this photo.)

The chips then head down another conveyor belt into a machine—I think the technical term is jigalator—that puts just the right amount of chips in each bag and before sealing them, locking in freshness. The bags of chips then head back downstairs via some other industrial contraption where they are boxed for delivery to distributors, grocery stores, convenience stores, and so on. A quality control clerk weighed bags of chips now and then, presumably checking on the accuracy of the jiggalator. That was pretty much the entire tour.

In the jargon of industrial snack food industry with a soup├žon of breathless tourism promotion lingo, not to mention judicious CAPS LOCK thrown in for good measure, Route 11 claims to offer an “amazing FRY-VIEWING experience”.  The rack card for the factory even notes that if you’re coming specifically for the FRY-VIEWING to call ahead to make sure that the factory is “in production”.

I admit it, I am not an expert in FRY-VIEWING. But if I had to offer an opinion, I would say as FRY-VIEWING goes Route 11 offers is well below average. You don’t see the potatoes boiling away in the hot oil, but instead just see steam rising from the cooker. It’s not the optimal FRY-VIEWING experience. And if I were the type to believe in conspiracy theories and black helicopters, I would wonder if there were any frying going on at all—it could be an elaborate ruse and a front for potato chips made out of recycled Chinese drywall.

One more thing: if you’re the kind of person who notices these things, you’d notice that all they workers on the factory floor seemed to be from South of the Rio Grande. Apparently Americans, at least those living around coordinates latitude N38.71968° longitude W78.66240°, are not all that keen on working in a potato chip factory.

If Route 11 has a chart of defective potato chips as they do at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory, we missed it. Even if it had been there, I would have had to sneak a photo since we were under strict instructions not to take photos of the actual chip making process. Presumably they are worried about industrial espionage, which, has no doubt reached epidemic proportions in the salty snack industry. Or perhaps they just don’t want to spoil the illusion that the chips are lovingly made by hipsters listening to remastered Frankie Yankovic tunes in a loft that’s actually situated along Route 11. Or, they don’t want folks to know that the chips are made by Mexicans in wearing hairnets in a big factory a stone’s throw from the Interstate. Or all of the above, take your choice.

But hey, the chip art is kinda nice.

I've never been a fan of BBQ flavored potato chips. Who makes barbecue that tastes like the flavor of barbecue chips?

Betcha a dollar to a donut that these taste like Old Bay Seasoning.

Dill pickle potato chips come under the heading of "instant bad idea".

The artist/graphic designer is not credited.

The super hot chips feature what looks to me like a slutty version of Moonbeam McSwine from Al Capp's comic strip, Lil' Abner.

OK, not all of the art it is very nice.  Some of it is super nice.

It's a pretty poor potato chip factory that doesn't have a potato chip themed chainsaw carving.

I got the backstory on Route 11 chips from a framed article from the February 1999 issue of Snackworld Magazine (not to be confused with Snatchworld Magazine, the official magazine of the Florida Bikini Waxing Association) That’s where I learned that the factory is owned by the same folks who own Washington, D.C.’s Tabard Inn, a charming hotel/restaurant where I’ve actually stayed a couple of times a long time ago. I remember hearing that the owners of the Inn owned an organic farm in Virginia where they grew the produce that was used in the restaurant.

According to the article, a potato chip factory is organic farm 2.0.  “There’s an artist trapped inside of me and we consider chipping a fine art” said one of the factory owners.

Yes, according to the February 1999 issue of Snackworld (not Snatchworld) Magazine, someone actually said that.

Interestingly enough, the tour completely ignores the factory's high tech pest control system deployed in the hallway that leads to the men's room.

Soon enough our "amazing FRY VIEWING experience" was over, but before getting back on the Interstate, we took a cursory look at the other sights of Exit 269. In addition to Route 11 Potato Chips and the Stonewall Jackson High School, it’s also the home to Shenandoah Caverns.

I’m not a born spelunker, so going into the cavern didn’t really do it for me, but I did get to spend quality time with a somewhat stunted cousin of the Statue of Liberty lifting its lamp beside the golden door of what looked to be a closed indoor amusement park.

They also have a giant and I do mean giant Cootie in a patriotic setting.

Oh and a giant frog too. Perhaps it's a cartoon character.  It's wearing a ruffed collar (perhaps in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death?) and a cowboy hat and holding a pitchfork.  Apparently if you are marketing a cave as a tourist attraction you think these are good ideas.

Or perhaps someone had taken a bunch of LSD, too. I wouldn’t rule that out.

After enjoying as much Americana as we could stand, we got back in the car, and pointed it south, toward our destination of Charlottesville’s Tom Tom Founders Festival to immerse ourselves in a weekend of Innovation, Art, Music, and Food...not necessarily in that order.


  1. One of your best, Rick - loved the tour!

    1. Glad you like, Katherine! Be sure to stop when you're in the neighborhood.

  2. Thanks for the mid afternoon road trip! : )
    It makes me wonder if there's a simiar Americana stop that would shed light on Ben Gravely's work over the border in WV?

    1. I'm not familiar with him. Do I need to get back in the car to check it out?

  3. Rick, you may receive duplicates of this message - so moderate away.... THE TABARD INN? That's MY mainstay in DC when I go there.... so here's to hoping that someday, someway our paths will cross there. RE: Route 11 chips - honestly - Joel and I just co-shared our FIRST bag this weekend - we picked it up at the Union Market in Church Hill, RVA.... Sweet Potatos! absolutely delish. Thanks so much for the tour and the pleasure of reading this good work. :)

    1. Glad the s.p. chips get a good review, the website says "Great for parties, tailgating, or sharing an afternoon snack with your work buddies". The Tabard Inn...who knew?!

  4. I would be willing to bet that someone, sometime, said “There’s an artist trapped inside of me and we consider snipping a fine art” in an issue of Snatchworld Magazine.