The big 20 – Route 11 celebrates success with honor

By Josette Keelor — jkeelor@nvdaily.com

MT. JACKSON — In December when Sarah Cohen, founder and president of Route 11 Potato Chips in Mt. Jackson, learned that the ‘Today’ show was going to include her company in a piece about food products that are great as mail ordered gifts, Cohen was ecstatic.

It was the biggest spotlight the company has enjoyed since the Food Network featured it a few years back, and it brought in a tidal wave of national attention within mere hours of the show’s airing.

Now, just in time for its 20th anniversary on Monday, Route 11 is back in the limelight, this time in “O, The Oprah Magazine,” which features the chip company in its April issue, reading, “Route 11’s Dill Pickle Potato Chips combine some of our favorite chip flavors into one perfect bite.”

“The Dill Pickle definitely, finally has come into its own,” said Cohen, who created the flavor 10 years ago. In the beginning not everyone thought the flavor was a good idea, but Cohen disagreed.

“I said, but it makes sense, dill pickle juices on potato chips,” she said.

Since then, Dill Pickle has become one of the company’s most popular flavors, becoming a finalist in last year’s Specialty Food Trade’s Fancy Food Show and, in 2005, named “Best Chip to Eat with a Burger,” by Real Simple Magazine.

“O” magazine also chose to feature Dill Pickle in its first ever food issue.

“They contacted us in January,” Cohen said. “And you never know, I mean you really don’t know until the moment arrives.” Having had disappointments in the past and having just been through the company’s quick rise to national fame in December, Cohen said she didn’t hold her breath that Route 11’s story would make it into the magazine.

“In the beginning of March they sent us a copy of the story,” she said — and that’s when she knew.

During the process of communicating with the magazine’s editors, Cohen said, “They sent an email saying they were totally obsessed with Route 11 [chips], which was even better than the story.”

“The ‘O’ thing has been a good thing,” she said. “It certainly is a good buzz, but it didn’t replicate what ‘Today’ show [did].”

On Monday Route 11 will celebrate 20 years in business, “so it’s a big day for us,” Cohen said. “I think of [the feature] as just our birthday gift because, you know, it’s helping us celebrate.”

Normally business slows down during the winter, she said.

“It’s just not chip eating weather yet,” Cohen said, adding that the boost from the feature in “O” was great timing. As soon as the temperature hits 70 degrees, Cohen said, “This is when it starts.”

Now an established business in the Shenandoah Valley, Route 11, which moved from Middletown to a larger factory in Mt. Jackson four years ago, began as the brainchild of Cohen, then a 26-year-old entrepreneur. She had not planned on going into the food business. In fact, she majored in English at Colorado Springs University and wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I grew up in the food business, from a very young age I’ve been a foodie,” she said.
“I know this sounds insane, and it is, but this really has been a do-it-yourself business,” she said. “It took awhile to get where we are.”

“When we started, I knew when we cooked our first batch that people were going to get these,” Cohen said.

The factory cooks about 13,000 pounds of potatoes a day, Cohen said, using fresh potatoes April through October and storage potatoes November through March.

When the company started in 1992, it was producing 60 pounds of chips an hour, she said. Now it’s 600 pounds.

“We can get from the peeler into the bag in eight minutes,” Cohen said, later adding, “Realistically it’s more like 10 minutes, but eight is optimal.”

“They’re all [plain] potato chips until they come up to our seasoning deck,” she said.

“We start with Lightly Salted, which is our best seller, in the morning, and then we move to one flavor in the afternoon,” Cohen said. The company made the switch to sea salt two years ago, using a Utah product called Real Salt — “and it is,” Cohen said. It’s raw and unrefined, unlike table salt which she said is stripped of natural minerals.

“It has all of the minerals that are supposed to be in salt,” she said. “It has 70 essential minerals, which I think are all of the minerals that salt is supposed to have.”

When the business was still new and small, Cohen said, she played around with flavors more, producing names like Mama Zuma’s Green, Sweet Potato Cinnamon and Sugar, Garlic and Herb and Mixed Veggie chips — all of which have been discontinued.

Too many ingredients made the chips less successful than the others that were better-received, Cohen said. But, the flavors that stuck around likely will be here to stay.

“The sweet potatoes are seasonal now,” Cohen said. The company orders sweet potatoes from a certified organic farmer on the Eastern Shore, who can only grow in season, she said.

“It’s hard to find certified organic chipping potatoes,” Cohen said.

The others — Lightly Salted, Sour Cream N Chive, Salt N Vinegar, Chesapeake Crab, Mama Zuma’s Revenge, Yukon Gold, Dill Pickle and Barbecue — have defined Route 11’s legacy.

“It’s the recipe and the ingredients that we use that really set us apart. … The ingredients that we use are really high quality,” Cohen said.

“Our quest from day one was to make a really good potato chip,” she said. “We’re cooking kettle style, so you slice your potato chip a little bit thicker. … They’re just the right kind of thickness.”

Looking back at the first 20 years, Cohen said she had no idea it would become what it did.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” she said. “I think my vision was always very limited … what success would look like.”

Despite the national attention, a major goal of hers has been to continue to promote around the Valley.

“We want to be recognized as the local potato chip here,” she said. “I feel like we have this big challenge for us to overcome.”

Still, interest outside the valley never hurts.

On Tuesday she learned that the Mama Zuma’s Revenge flavor is up for an award from this year’s Fancy Food Show, which will be in D.C.

“It’s like a big deal in the trade,” Cohen said. “Winning stuff like that, you get a lot of free attention.

Though the company has grown a lot, Cohen said she wants to keep the process simple.

“I don’t have any interest in making this a 24-hour plant,” she said. “It just goes against, like, our intuitions, so we’re trying to survive in our own personal business model.”