"If you've never had a blue crab experience, or been at a crab feast, you're kind of like, 'What is this?'" says Sarah Cohen, Route 11 president and co-founder. "If I see somebody ordering a lot of crab and they're in Kansas City, we'll call them up to see if they understand what the crab is. Usually they don't, and they're thankful that we called."
Advances in potato chip making technology and distribution have flattened what may once have been a much wider variety of regional chip preferences, some analysts and executives say. Potato chip making began in the mid-19th century with mom-and-pop operations in practically any small town with access to potatoes, oil and a kettle to fry them in.
Today, the industry uses "chipping potatoes" grown specifically for the purpose, and has developed technology to produce a more uniform chip. Advances in packaging and the emergence of big box chains mean chips now can travel much farther, spreading once local tastes throughout the country.
"Through the mass marketers, through Costco and BJs, Walmart, a lot of product that was regional has now become national," says the Snack Food Association's McCarthy. "You can find Utz potato chips in California and before you couldn't."
For sure, standardization and competition from giant producers like Frito-Lay may have squeezed some smaller companies out of business, executives say. But it may be the predominance of those flat, mass-produced chips that has also kept regional passions alive.
"Trying to compete with the giants out there hasn't been successful," says Inventure's Sklar. "That's where regional players like Poore Brothers come in with a different product and then regional flavors to enhance that. Going head-to-head with Frito-Lay on a flat chip just isn't going to work."