But even Frito-Lay plays the regional flavors game. The company began experimenting a decade ago with flavors like "Chicago Steakhouse Loaded Baked Potato," and "San Antonio Salsa." Today, it offers roughly a dozen specialty flavors such as Wavy Au Gratin in the Midwest, Garden Tomato & Basil in the East, and a thick-cut Deli chip for Colorado.
Executives create new flavors by surveying popular items and food trends in the different regions, said Ram Krishnan, Frito-Lay vice president of marketing. But today they also employ Facebook and other social media to crowd source preferences. In contests that have been held around the world, the company invites consumers to suggest new flavors on the company's Facebook page. The current contest, the first in the United States, runs through October 6. Flavors like sautéed onion and ketchup, smoked salmon, and bacon — with anything from cheese to chocolate — have been suggested.
Some flavors that started out as regional specialties — for example, Limon, originally for California — have gained a wider audience.
"What always happens is that a lot of the regional cuisines have expanded and become more mainstream," says Krishnan, suggesting, for instance, that the popularity of Mexican food has helped the "limon" flavor gain fans. "We always find we launch these regional flavors and then they expand."
The company has also experienced a sort of reverse migration. Overseas under various brands, Frito-Lay sells flavors like roast chicken to the British, caviar to Russians, and spicy masala to hungry Indians. Occasionally, these find their way back to the United States: Limon began in Mexico, Krishnan says, and a ketchup-flavored chip now popular in Buffalo, N.Y., began in Canada. In the future, Krishnan says, even more of those overseas flavors are likely to hit the United States to cater to the country's ethnic populations.
"Good ideas come from everywhere, especially when you think about the changing demographics of this country and how multicultural we're becoming," he says. "It's a matter of time."MICHELE KAYAL