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A Super Bowl of chips

The road from Hanover, Pa., to Baltimore is paved with potato chips -- plain and wavy, fried in cottonseed oil, lard and olestra, and dusted in three kinds of orange barbecue seasoning, Carolina, honey and red hot.

Every morning before 7 a.m., a small convoy of 80 Utz Quality Foods route vans bearing the likeness of the apple-cheeked "Little Utz Girl" makes the 40-mile trek to Baltimore, delivering snacks to stores, supermarket chains and farmers' markets, and to people like Anita Wilkinson, who wouldn't dream of eating any other brand.

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"Utz is it," declared Wilkinson as she stood in Cross Street Market this week dressed in a Baltimore Ravens sweat shirt and toasting the American Football Conference champions with a plastic cup filled with Coors Light.

"Lays and all that other stuff aren't as good," said Wilkinson, 54, who owns the Old Lighthouse Inn on Light Street and lives in Fullerton. "They just don't taste the same."

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Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, it's likely the bowls of potato chips, pretzels, corn chips, popcorn and other salty snacks Baltimore-area fans will be munching were made in Hanover or a nearby Pennsylvania town, an area that bills itself as "The Snack Food Capital of the World." Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest snack-food sales days of the year, eclipsed only by the Fourth of July, Labor Day and New Year's Eve.

Dozens of snack food manufacturers are in York, Berks and Lancaster counties in south-central Pennsylvania. In addition to Utz, there's Snyder's of Hanover in Hanover (the region's No. 1 pretzel maker and the country's No. 2 pretzel company) and Herr Foods Inc. in Nottingham (No. 3 in potato chips regionally). Other manufacturers include Martin's Potato Chips in Thomasville, Bickel's Potato Chips in Manheim and Snyder of Berlin in Berlin.

York County's convention and visitor's bureau promotes the "Snack Food Capital" claim on its Web site, although bureau President Ann Druck acknowledged that she's uncertain where the title originated.

"This is it right here," said J. M. Herr, president of Herr's, a $100 million snack food company his father founded in 1946.

"Some people say it's the most competitive market in the country," said Herr, a former Snack Food Association president. "That's probably true because of the number of players."

Frito-Lay, makers of Ruffles and Lays, might make the most popular chip in the nation, but in the Baltimore-Washington region, Utz is king. Nobody sells more potato chips.

Utz potato chips had 53 percent of the market share and more than $28.6 million in sales in supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington region last year, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago market research company that tracks the industry. By comparison, Frito-Lay, which has 66 percent of the national potato chip market share, has 36 percent of the market share in Baltimore-Washington and $19.7 million in regional sales.

In supermarkets in New York -- Giants country -- Utz potato chips are fourth in sales; Lays is No. 1.

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"You could think of Lays and Utz as a Super Bowl of potato chips every single day," said Lynn Markley, spokeswoman for Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay, which has manufacturing plants in Aberdeen and York, Pa.

3.5 billion chips

Speaking of the Super Bowl, last year Americans ate about 11.8 million pounds of potato chips -- some 3.5 billion individual chips -- during the big game, according to the Snack Food Association. Potato chips are the most popular Super Bowl snack and the most popular snack food in the mid-Atlantic region in general, the association said.

But what about Utz? Why, with so many potato chips to choose from -- regionally and nationally -- do the ones made by the Hanover company get munched in Baltimore more than any brand?

Standing on the floor of the frying room of the 550,000-square-foot Hanover factory where Utz churns out 14,000 pounds of potato chips every day, Gary Laabs offered his opinion by holding out a handful of chips straight from the fryer.

The chips were golden and tasted like warm, salt-covered, potato-scented air. Like heaven. Like home. "It's the flavor," Laabs, Utz's vice president of human resources, said as he popped a chip into his mouth. "They love our chips."

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Utz didn't invent potato chips; George Crum did. In 1853, Crum, a cook at Moon's Lake House, a resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., created the snack when a customer, reportedly railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, sent back an order of fried potatoes, complaining that they were cut "too thick," according to the Snack Food Association. Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes paper-thin, tossed them in hot oil and fried them to a crisp. "Saratoga chips" became a fad among patrons of the inn, and the recipe spread.

Utz's chip-making room at its High Street factory in Hanover is no territory for the sodium savvy, the waist watchers, the health conscious. A film of oil coats the tile floor. A whiff of the air is enough to add 5 pounds.

The 40 tons of potatoes the company uses every day -- more than a dozen varieties such as Atlantic and Norchip -- are grown all over the country for making potato chips or "chipping."

From September to April, Utz stores 40 million pounds of potatoes in a 275,000-square-foot basement at the plant, in wooden crates stacked 20 feet high.

"We can control the temperature and humidity and slow the chemical action of the potatoes so they become dormant," Laabs said as he walked through the root cellar that smelled of earth.

The potatoes are washed and transported upstairs for cooking in a brown foamy bath of water rich with potato starch. The potatoes are mechanically peeled, sliced to 0.055 inches thick and tumbled in water to remove starch.

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The chips are cooked on a conveyor belt in 340-degree oil for about three minutes while rotating paddle wheels keep the slices from clumping. Then they're salted, seasoned, weighed and bagged.

Utz has expanded from its initial output of 50 pounds of chips an hour to 280 times that amount, but the company's snacks are still available only in a limited area -- as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as North Carolina. "They're too fragile to move across the country," Laabs said.

Core market

Baltimore has been part of Utz's core market since soon after the company was founded by Bill and Salie Utz in 1921. No sooner did the couple begin making potato chips in the summer house behind their Hanover home than Bill began selling the chips by the pound out of metal cans at Cross Street and Lexington markets, as well as at independent stores and fairs in Hanover and Baltimore.

"Years ago, before shopping centers and other places, this was the way to get Utz," said John S. Nichols, owner of Steve's Lunch in the Cross Street Market, who took over the Utz stand a decade ago and sells the chips for $3.15 a pound.

Ninety percent of Utz snacks are consumed within a week of the manufacture date, but Nichols said he thinks the chips still taste best out of the can.

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"Sometimes you start eating them and you can't stop," he said.

Utz operates the stand at Lexington Market, but it's hardly the brand's only outlet there. Just try to find a Frito, a Dorito, a Ruffle in that market. It's nearly impossible.

No customer at Bill Marvelis' Greek food carryout, Mount Olympus, has so much as asked for a non-Utz chip in the 8 1/2 years he's run the business. He's unsure why.

"Baltimore is a strange place," said Marvelis, 35.

Not really.

Local attachment

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When it comes to snacks, consumers everywhere like what's locally made, said John E. Harmon, a professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in regionalism and popular culture.

"There's a lot of local attachment to particular snack foods," said Harmon, 53, who grew up eating Buckeye Potato Chips in Columbus, Ohio, and published a history of the potato chip on the Internet. "It's generational. You buy what you ate when you were a kid."

As a kid growing up in West Baltimore, Brian Kelm, a Columbia graphic designer who is a Ravens season-ticket holder, ate Utz.

"I don't ever remember any other kind of potato chip," said Kelm, 32. When the trucks selling sno-balls and sodas came around McHenry Street on summer afternoons, he ordered a bag of Utz and a Coke. "Utz meant 'potato chips' then sort of like Xerox means 'copy' now," he said.

Utz enthusiasts might grow up and move away, but they don't seem to forget.

Ravens fan Anita Wilkinson left Wednesday night for Tampa, Fla., her pine green Ford Excursion carrying four Baltimore revelers eager to see the Ravens trounce the Giants in the Super Bowl and bring the title home.

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They're taking along potato chips: crab-flavored Utz. Wilkinson said the chips are for her sister, who lives in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We can't leave here unless we take her some Utz," Wilkinson said.


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