Why the difference?
Despite the competition, it seems, the Pennsylvania potato chip industry hasn't crumbled under the Frito-Lay onslaught of the last decade.
"Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of potato chip companies, and they've been able to keep Frito-Lay at bay," said Bruce Huffaker, editor of the North American Potato Market News. West of the Rockies, only two regional potato chip companies, Clover Club and Granny Goose, survived.
To survive, Pennsylvania potato chip companies have spiced up their product lines with new flavors - the improbable jalapeno and seafood, among them - and filled bags with "homestyle" (read: thick) chips. They are placing discount stickers on store shelves to compete with newspaper coupons. Some promote their chips as handmade, a tactic hard for the mass-produced Frito-Lay brands to copy. Others are frying chips with lard, or pig fat, for extra flavor. Most chips are fried in cottonseed, soybean or peanut oil.
Pennsylvania has six regional potato-chip companies - a veritable embarrassment of potato chip riches, including Herr's, Utz, Martin's, Bon Ton, Bickel's and Snyder's of Hanover. They are clustered in the state's Potato Chip Belt, an area in the southeast quadrant of the state with quick access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
About 20 smaller companies in Pennsylvania also make chips, largely for local markets.
"You have more entrepreneurs in potato chips than other states," said Arvin Budge, a statistician and potato expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lest anyone wonder, federal potato-market watchers won't say exactly what share of potato chip production occurs in Pennsylvania, or in any other state. But they will say Pennsylvania ranks first, followed by Texas (home to Frito-Lay) and California.
Kenneth Potter, president of Martin's Potato Chips, in Thomasville, York County, is one of Pennsylvania's potato chip entrepreneurs.
In the early 1970s, he bought an old potato chip plant outside York; in a grainy black-and-white photo pinned to a bulletin board, it looks like an old bait shack. He sold about $100,000 a year in potato chips then. This year, he is projecting between $18 million and $20 million in sales for Martin's Potato Chips.
As he walked through his plant, he scooped up handfuls of potato chips coming off the production line and shoved them into his mouth. "I eat at least a pound a day," he said.
Potter's potato chip plant is filled with gleaming, computerized equipment, such as a continuous fryer that spits out 1,400 pounds of potato chips an hour. One device takes pictures of rippled chips coming out of the fryer. When the cameras detect a chip with deformities, air jets shoot it into a waste bin before it reaches the bagging line.
"I'm a firm believer in what Colonel Sanders said: Do one thing and do it the best," said Potter, 60, who is grooming his two sons in the business. "I make the best potato chips in the country. And I make the best popcorn in the country. I screw with nothing else. It takes too much work."
Potter's confidence aside, making potato chips is a fiercely competitive business. In the last 40 years, hundreds of potato chip plants in the United States have closed even as chip consumption has doubled.
Consumers haven't suffered. After adjusting for inflation, the retail price of chips declined 21 percent, from $4 to $3.15 per pound, between 1980 and 1997, the government says.
Pennsylvania potato chip companies survived the consolidation, only to confront a new threat: the vexing problem suddenly evident to health-conscious consumers that potato chips, however tasty, aren't exactly good for you.
For the last few years, chip consumption has stalled at 1.2 billion pounds a year - a fact that market watchers attribute to fat-conscious Baby Boomers cutting back on high-calorie snacks or finding other foods to munch on.
In Pennsylvania, Frito-Lay has attacked the entrenched potato chippers with renewed ferocity, using its arsenal of national brands, newspaper discounts, and reduced fat and no-fat potato chips to gain market share.
Frito-Lay's Wow potato chips, which are produced from the controversial fat substitute Olestra, sold more than $347 million in their first year. The $5.2 billion market is already dominated by two other Frito-Lay brands, Lay's and Ruffles, according to the Snack Food Association.
Wow was the best-selling new consumer packaged-good product in 1998, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago research company. "People love their Wow," Frito-Lay spokeswoman Lynn Markley said. "We strongly believe we have the best potato chip and the best quality out there."
Not all Pennsylvania chip-makers can take the heat. In the last two years, Stehman's Potato Chip in Manheim and Groff's Snack Foods in Bowmansville have gone under. A third potato chipper, Bon Ton Foods Inc. in York, is reportedly up for sale. Two potato chip companies have been sold: Nibble With Gibble's in Chambersburg to Martin's Famous Pastry Shoppe Inc., and Bickel's Potato Chip Co. to Hanover Foods.
Pennsylvania chip-makers must play to their strengths to survive and maintain Pennsylvania's potato chip dominance in the Northeast.
It's only a short haul to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Washington, all major markets. Companies can fry their chips and have them on store shelves within hours, allowing them to market their chips as fresher and premium quality without necessarily charging higher prices.
Closer to home, the native Pennsylvania Dutch population loves potato chips and sticks by local brands. It was from this consumer base that Herr's, of Chester County, and Utz, of Hanover, expanded beyond rural Pennsylvania.
Utz, the nation's No. 7 brand, now sells an Olestra chip, called Yes, to compete with Frito-Lay's Wow, said Utz vice president Gary Laabs. Utz also cooks a low-fat baked chip, a regular chip, and the lard-fried Grandma Utz. Since lard isn't kosher, Grandma Utz chips are fried at a separate factory, Laabs said.
Lard may not be making a comeback in every market, but some Pennsylvania chip-makers see potential in veering from the fat-conscious herd.
"Our philosophy is that if people are going to eat potato chips, they don't care about their weight," said Jennifer Warehime, an executive at the company that makes the Bickel's potato chip.
Bickel's will sell about $9 million in potato chips this year, mostly in south-central Pennsylvania and the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Ralph Good Inc., meanwhile, cooks its potato chips in lard - slowly. This is a trick that makes chips crunchier and tastier. "Ours curl up a little more," said Greg Good, plant manager for the fourth-generation, family-owned company. "They're not flat like the big guys' chips."
Ralph Good's has a special marketing problem. Only a few miles away, distant relative Lewis Good sells potato chips under the Good name, too. Most people don't even realize they are two different companies.
"People identify us because his bags are blue and ours are red," Greg Good said. "People at the store say, 'Give me a bag of the blue' or 'Give me a bag of the red.' We're known as Blue Good's or Red Good's."
Not far from both Goods, the potato fryer was spitting and crackling the other day at King's Potato Chips in Mohnton, a small town along Reading Road in Berks County. It is a thoroughfare where Mennonites in derbies pedal 10-speeds or ride horse-drawn buggies. With Memorial Day gone by, potato chip season was in full swing.
Up since about 5 a.m., King's owner Glenn Weber had fried hundreds of pounds of potato chips and had run out of spuds. He was shutting down the fryer.
Among Weber's various niches is producing private-label 25-cent bags of potato chips for a Philadelphia distributor whose target market is African Americans.
Chumpies are sold in purple bags with a picture of three boys, one wearing a baseball cap with the letters "Hboys," for homeboys. Homegirls are sold in a blue bag with three girls on it, one of them wearing Muslim head garb and another wearing a baseball cap that says "HGirls."
Weber said the distributor sells about 29,000 of these bags a week. "He'd probably take more if I could make them," he said.
Weber is also developing a new potato chip. He is calling it the "vegetable-garden chip," and it will be fried in lard and sprinkled with flavors of carrot, pepper, celery and tomato. "I'm looking for something different," he said. "Maybe it will go, maybe it won't."