Everyone knows that visiting another country’s grocery store is one of the best things about traveling. But it is also one of the most infuriating, because here you are, confronted by all these things you now wish your own grocery store carried: Why don’t I have paneer cup ramen or jarred hot dogs? (I actually do not want jarred hot dogs.) Nowhere is this frustration more prevalent than in the potato chip aisle. All around the world, people are enjoying flavors like hot pot, lamb and mint, poulet roti, and spicy Korean ramen. In America, we’ve been stuck with sour cream and onion, and our most “exotic” option in decades has been the one-note burn of “Flamin’ Hot.”
For years I’ve tried to wrap my head around this divide. For starters, many of these international flavors are manufactured by Frito-Lay, so presumably they could just make the same recipes here. And on top of that, there seems to be demand, at least anecdotally. Every time a friend of mine posts a chip they’re eating in another country, their comments light up with people begging them to bring some back. Blogs like Lay’s Around the World collect reviews of international offerings, Reddit’s r/Chips has more than 3,000 members talking about where to find more interesting flavors, and YouTube is full of international snack reviews. On top of that, Takis have taken off, proving there’s a market for bolder flavors. So why do chips in the U.S. still suck so much?
To understand why I can’t buy India’s Magic Masala chips at Target, we first have to understand how chips and other snacks are produced. And according to Jason Cohen, CEO of Gastrograph AI, the whole process is broken. Gastrograph is a company that helps food companies develop new products by using AI to target specific demographics. “All of the tools that exist today are geared towards making generally acceptable products,” he says. “It’s the bell curve.” Flavors like barbecue, sour cream and onion, and plain salt are produced because everyone likes them; and Flamin’ Hot only arose after a critical mass of people sought them out.
The search for the most broadly acceptable flavor is how chip development is done everywhere. However, what is considered “broadly acceptable” changes from country to country. “You can build a generally acceptable targeted product in a more ethnically homogeneous country,” says Cohen. The U.S. is huge, diverse, and has tons of regional differences. “So when you start doing traditional consumer testing, it’s about the lowest common denominator.” In France the lowest common denominator gets you a poulet roti chip, and in China a spicy crayfish chip, and in Kazakhstan pickles and dill. Here, we get endless riffs on cheese and onions.
Given that the U.S is a big country, you’d think that if 15 percent of the population is interested in a hot pot chip, that’s still millions of people these companies could be reaching. But according to Cohen, the way research is done usually won’t catch those people who want more unusual flavors. When choosing people to taste-test new products, major snack companies look for “heavy users,” or people who eat chips around four times a week. That volume likely has to do with how a lot of people eat chips — as a side with a lunch sandwich or soup, requiring a flavor that doesn’t overpower whatever it’s being paired with. But even if you’re buying chips to eat independently, that’s a lot. “The average consumer doesn’t eat chips four times a week. So they’re choosing people who are already dedicated potato chip eaters,” which holds back making more targeted products.
Furthermore, it ignores people who are not currently chip eaters, but who might eat them more if there were more interesting flavors around. And it ignores how much someone may like chips to begin with. To determine whether a new flavor is worth making, Cohen says chip companies have test subjects do a side-by-side taste test with a chip already on the market. And for them to produce it, the majority of the tasters must like the new chip more than what already exists. “Half the people in that panel could say, ‘I don’t know. I like this one at a six and I like this one at a five,’” and 15 percent of the panel could say the new chip is the best thing they’ve ever tasted, and the company still won’t make it, says Cohen. “They don’t base their decisions on the magnitude of preference, they base it on the mean of preference.”
Mark Lang, associate professor of marketing at the University of Tampa, says this unwillingness to take risks on products extends to manufacturing and retail as well. “A product has to appeal to more than half the people in the country to fit into their factories and take up the millions of units that they put through their factories,” he says. Even if Lay’s already manufactures these flavors in other countries, in order to avoid spending the money developing and testing a new recipe, “they need flavors that 60 percent of the population want to buy. That just knocks off all that cool stuff.” And retailers too don’t want to take risks on putting something on the shelves that won’t move, or won’t move as much as what’s already there. “If you can’t sell 8 million units in the second half of next year, we’re not talking to you,” says Lang of the prevailing retail attitude. “Because we can sell 8 million units of salt and vinegar.”
As always, it appears commerce is the death of art. Decisions are based on what has already been sold to people already buying, not what could sell to people who didn’t even know they needed king crab with XO sauce chips in their life. But according to Lang, most people do not share my singular obsession with eating weird chips. He points to studies done every year by the NPD Group, a consumer data research group that publishes an annual analysis of the American kitchen. “It astonishes me how much that analysis shows nothing,” says Lang. “It’s still peanut butter and jelly, pizza, ham and cheese, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers. The bulk of the country hasn’t changed at all.”
Lang says this can be described with the diffusion of innovation theory, a social science theory that explains how ideas disseminate through a population. “The innovators are only two and a half percent of the population; those are the people who are always first in trying and sharing new things,” he says. “And the early adopters are 13 and a half percent.” That roughly 16 percent of the population comprises those who may be interested in these new flavors. As it goes, that’s not enough to change the way the snack industry is built.
So what would change that? Cohen says his goal is to get companies to think of their products as a portfolio, with each dominating a small market, rather than each product being broadly popular. “If you develop five products and 20 percent of the population likes each of those products, now you have a really strong brand portfolio that [hits] 100 percent of the population,” he explains. Lang says it could also just be a matter of changing how companies import. They already make the chips elsewhere, so it’d be easy enough to run packaging in English and ship things here — though currently supply chain issues may add yet another hurdle to our collective shrimp-chip enjoyment.
Maybe the data is correct and the market just isn’t there. But maybe it is, or could be, if companies chose to look. After all, there has been innovation in the American chip aisle. Hal’s chips has introduced flavors like sweet chile and dill pickle, Zapp’s (now owned by Utz) is expanding nationally with flavors like spicy cajun crawtators, Trader Joe’s sells pickle as well as everything bagel chips, and Pringles does have a rotisserie chicken chip. Frito-Lay has made Flamin’ Hot everything, and also occasionally runs limited-edition chips for its flavor competitions, which results in wilder flavors like “Greektown Gyro” and “New York Reuben.”
I don’t think it’s as simple as the majority of the population being disinterested in trying something unfamiliar and bold. We may still be a few years off from innovation diffusing to the mainstream. By then, perhaps my bodega will carry grilled prawn gochujang chips. Or better yet, we’ll have all learned that relying on corporate giants that are poisoning the planet to fuel culinary creativity is a losing endeavor, and we should be looking elsewhere for our flavor thrills.
Sabrina Johnson is a visual artist, illustrator, art director & dog mom living in Los Angeles, California.