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Crunch time.

Byline: ELAINE BEEBE LAPRIORE The Register-Guard

SALEM - Touring the Kettle Chips factory turns us into kindergartners, Nicole the news photographer and I.

We stare fascinated at the sight of 50,000 pounds of brown, dusty potatoes in one heap and inhale their earthiness. We jump back at the rumbling aftershocks above when the potatoes at the very bottom slide onward, beginning their journey into chipdom.

The potatoes glide up ramps, down ramps, into washers and cutters. Thick slices land in rows onto a conveyor belt, then dive into the hot oily swimming pool and wiggle themselves cooked, a batch at a time. From time to time, an employee nudges them with a garden rake.

Draining on conveyor belts, they are picked over by hand for quality control. The rejects drop into big yellow trash cans; to our untrained eyes, chip detritus looks like a mountain of snacks.

The chips spend time in a tumbler that's about the diameter of a hula hoop which applies the seasonings that make a chip a chip: spices and peppers and especially salts. Finally, they are zipped into fresh, crisp bags and packed away in boxes.

Watching potatoes become chips feels like a school field trip, right down to childlike fantasies of snitching a taste right off the conveyor belt - enacted sanitarily by a dip of a tray held by the company's public affairs manager, Jim Green. Munch, crunch, grin.

You'd think the "mission" of a potato chip factory would be self-explanatory, but Kettle Foods founder Cameron Healy begs to differ.

The "people culture" of the company, he says, is crucial. "We feel that is essential to making these products. There's still a craft element to making these products."

Healy's focus began during the six years he spent with Golden Temple Bakery, which he co-founded in Eugene in 1972 and which incorporated the Sikh community and the growing natural-foods movement with the distribution of whole-grain breads and granola.

"It plateaued," Healy says, and with four children then, "I wanted to create a business for my family." So Healy moved to Salem and started Kettle Foods in 1978 as a man in a van selling cheese and nuts to health food stores up and down Interstate 5.

When Green joined the business 22 years ago, Kettle Foods had a staff of four and was beginning to experiment with hand-cooked potato chips.

Healy was fascinated by the Russet Burbank, "the original chipping potato." The Russet's higher sugar content caramelizes during cooking and makes a darker, more flavorful chip, unlike big, bland, white potatoes bred for mass-market chipping. Boutique chip companies as far away as Maui were importing Russets from Oregon. Why not make chips here? Healy thought.

In July 1982, Kettle Chips began production: 40 cases a night. The company learned a few lessons along the way. For one, Lightly Salted and No Salt should not be sold in the same colored bag.

Yet the thicker-cut chips, in their unpeeled glory, connected with consumers - some for the notion of their natural, organic stance, their interesting position as a "healthy" potato chip or just for the taste.

The company - which to Green's knowledge is Oregon's only chip maker - has expanded to open plants in Norwich, England, and Springfield, Ohio.

Three years ago, the Salem plant moved from downtown to a glossy building beside a wetlands area. A nest of blue herons keeps watch on the front door from a tree high above.

"In a very industrial environment, it creates a balance," Healy says. "It makes us feel kind of whole."

Kettle Foods still sells the nut mixes and nut butters with which Healy launched the company. Their 100 percent organic tortilla chips use a patented addition of sprouted corn and sometimes the distinctive snap of sesame or caraway.

But from Oregon to England to Guam, the potato chip brands the company by elevating what was once a pedestrian snack. "Natural" snack foods and gourmet flavorings have converged, and brand identity proves harder to forge - so much so that Green refers to them in the natural flow of speech as "Kettle brand Chips."

But Kettle Chips have their niche. In a hallway in the plant, the Kettle Chips wall of fame includes product placements from TV shows such as "Absolutely Fabulous" and fan mail from Aerosmith and Chuck Mangione, who autographed an empty bag of New York Cheddar with Herbs.

Does anyone remember the days of Plain, Barbecue and the newly exotic Sour Cream & Onion?

Today's potato chip aisle is a dizzying proposition. Lay's Bistro Style Applewood BBQ & Smoked Cheddar ... Tim's Cascade Style Parmesan & Garlic ... Terra Red Bliss Olive Oil, Sun-Dried Tomato & Balsamic Vinegar ...

The Kettle Chips lineup is sold locally at PC Market of Choice, Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, Sundance Natural Foods, Red Barn Natural Grocery and Fred Meyer (in the Nutrition Center, not next to the Ruffles).

A highly unscientific perusal at the Coburg Road Safeway and the Springfield Fred Meyer revealed that all potato chips, when not on sale, range from 16 cents an ounce for generic store-brand chips to 50 cents an ounce for the gourmet varieties in the smaller-size packs.

Depending on where you shop, Kettle Chips can cost in the 25 cents-an-ounce range, the same as Ruffles or Lay's. Costco carries a 32-ounce bag of Kettle Chips for $5.39, or 17 cents an ounce.

Enough yakking, it's time to sample some of Kettle's finest. Common to all the flavors is a satisfying texture and thickness, an appealing color and hefty crunch.

The Sea Salt & Vinegar is somewhat puckery for my taste, but it's the company's second-best seller, after the plain-Jane Lightly Salted. The Honey Dijon is decidedly sweet.

Sharpened by blue cheese and Parmesan, the New York Cheddar with Herbs tastes like cheese, not fake Cheddar - an important snack-food distinction, as each has its place - and eating them doesn't coat your fingers with bright orange dust. The "herbs," which seem to be onion, garlic, parsley, cumin and paprika, are definitely background.

Papery and ephemeral, the low-fat Kettle Crisps have much more potato flavor than the last "baked" chip I tasted. An ounce of them has 110 calories and 15 fat grams, compared to the 150/80 count of regular chips, but the lack of fried salty satisfaction is your trade-off.

Is there really much difference between Salsa With Mesquite, Habanero Chili With Ginger and the new Summer Barbeque?

Why yes, there is. The Salsa chip's tomato taste predominates, with hints of onion and bell pepper. Heavy on the hickory, the Summer Barbeque boasts a skillful balance of smoky and sweet.

The Habanero/Ginger starts with a whiff of sweetness that accelerates to hot, lickety-split. (Cold beverage alert!) Its heat has the depth of both ginger and hot pepper, with a flicker of lime. One of the more unusual and tastier niche chips.

Yogurt & Green Onion chips are more subtle than the average sour cream and chive. Kettle's flavor-packer in the category is the Krinkle Cut Dill & Sour Cream, which tastes like chip and dip all in one. For a party chip, that might be it, unless you want people to drink a lot, which would require the Habanero.

My park-it-on-the-couch-watching-SportsCenter chip would have to be the zippy Krinkle Cut Salt & Ground Black Pepper, which incorporates white pepper and powdered jalapeno in its complex profile. As with the Dill & Sour Cream, the ridged chips seem to retain the seasonings more.

As I was finishing this story, pretty much all chipped out, a package arrived in the mail - a work in progress, the yet-to-be released Burgundy with Aged Cheddar flavor of Kettle brand Potato Chips. Not due on shelves until November, it follows Summer Barbeque in the new Seasonal Edition series.

"Please know that these bags are prototypes," Jim Green warned. "I opened a bag out of the same lot that we sent you and thought they were a little on the light side seasoning-wise. ...'

The seasoning was too light to gauge the new flavor properly; my co-workers agreed.

But still, advance prototype potato chips delivered to your desk? A grown-up-food-writer version of the childhood chip-factory dream.

CAPTION(S):

Potato chips are inspected at the Kettle Chip factory in Salem.
COPYRIGHT 2002 The Register Guard
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 19, 2002
Words:1366
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