Your flavor may be Honey Dijon. Or Cheddar Beer. Or possibly even the brand-new Sriracha . Regardless, one thing's for sure: no one can get enough of those Kettle Brand chips. Just how do the folks at Kettle manage to achieve the ideal thickness, the right crunch, and unique flavors that are both familiar and exotic, satisfying and addictive? As part of the brand's Flavor First tour, I had a chance to find out. Get a behind-the-scenes look at how flavors are developed, potatoes are prepped, and those oh-so-craveable chips are made.
Flavor Exploration . . .
The beginning of a Kettle chip's journey starts with a team of food developers, led by the brand's "chief flavor architect," Carolyn Ottenheimer, who scours everything from grocery store shelves to magazines for ideas. Carolyn walked us through Zupan's, a local market, where rows of aisles boasted condiments ranging from sweet orange chile ketchup to green curry paste to fresno-habañero hot sauce. Flavor ideation doesn't necessarily even begin with a potato. "We take our filter off and don't even worry about how it'll be on a chip. Instead, it's about trends, what consumers are looking for," explains brand manager Marc McCullagh, citing the general combination of sweet and savory as an example.
. . . No Chip Necessary
For further inspiration, Carolyn likes exploring Portland's food trucks; they're often concentrated in one place and don't involve a heavy monetary or time commitment. The grilled cheese with peanut butter sriracha, fresh basil, curry, and orange marmalade from PBJ's Grilled  brought to mind Kettle's Spicy Thai chips .
Developing Flavor Targets
Once Kettle's food developers identify new ideas, they convene to agree upon what they call "flavor targets," bringing as many food references as they can to the table, both figuratively as well as literally.
"We use actual grocery references, so we are on the same page," explains Becky Anderson, Kettle's research and development manager. For the brand's Sweet & Salty chips, which came out last Summer, the team was inspired by kettle corn and its mix of sweet, salty, and buttery flavors, so Kettle bought as many existing products with the same combination as they could: various types of kettle corn, as well as sweeteners, different salts, and butters.
Language Development Sessions
To illustrate her point, Becky re-created one of the company's so-called language development sessions. She instructed everyone to taste a mixture of sugar and butter as well as try to apply that mixture on a chip. "Is this really the reference we want?" she asked. (The answer turned out to be no.) A similar system was applied when developing the brand's Maple Bacon potato chips; there, the team discovered maple bacon attributes that were likable (caramelized, slightly sweet, smoky, lingering flavors) as well as undesirable (artificial, corn-syrup-like, fried doughy).
From there, the research and development team helps transform flavor targets into an actual flavored dry blend that is tested on chips in very small batches. Many prototypes won't work, but that's par for the course; the team develops over 400 flavor prototypes each year.
The Potato Comes Into Play
Nearly 500,000 raw chipper potatoes come through Kettle's Salem, OR, factory daily; they're either hauled by the truckload, fresh from a farm near Burbank, CA, between June and October or from storage during the potato's off-season. In what's known as the "raw room," they're scrubbed until clean, then prepped for slicing.
Slicing and Frying
Potatoes are shuffled via a conveyor belt to a weigh scale, then through a slicing machine, before finally hitting one of 14 deep fryers.
The potato slices, which fry in 300-pound batches at 300ºF, take about 10 to 15 minutes to acquire the achieved consistency; this time depends on the variety of chip.
Chip-making for Kettle's baked line is far more labor-intensive and costly to produce; once sliced, potatoes are microwaved first, then toasted, in a process that removes moisture.
After drying on a conveyor belt, chips move through a seasoning drum, which spins as it coats the chips with oil, salt, and flavoring. Before being packaged, the potato chips go through a stringent set of checkpoints. A laser sorter looks for soft-centered and extraoily chips. A round of cameras pointed at the conveyor belt, which is running at 6,000 pounds per hour, looks for color defects. (Color is an important factor for the folks at Kettle: "Perception changes based on color. We want it to be natural but also suggestive of the flavor," Carolyn explains.) A shaker separates chips and sorts out loose ends, which are sold to farmers to use for their cattle.
After being portioned out by weight, chips are packaged, sealed, and sent out of one of two distribution centers (Salem, OR, or Beloit, WI, for locations east of the Rocky Mountains). Because light, oxygen, and heat can affect fats and oils, snack bags are made with a foil interior, and are blasted with nitrogen, an oxygen barrier, to prevent as much oxidation as possible.
Technically, Kettle Chips have a six-month shelf life. But let's be honest: it's pretty much a guarantee that they'll never make it that long.