If you've been to a deli or grocery store in the past, oh, lifetime or so, you've probably noticed that potato chips come in a staggering variety of exotic (and frequently bizarre) flavors. Ketchup, crab, pickle, biscuits and gravy, baby back ribs—all are tastes dusted onto some of the estimated 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips Americans crunch down each year.
But at a time when a mango habanero chip is no more surprising than an ancho chili cheeseburger chip, how is any snack brand supposed to stand out?
Wise Foods has hit on one way—or, you might say, parked on one. The 95 year-old brand's latest two flavors, beef barbacoa tacos and loaded chili cheese dog, are part of a new line called Food Truck Favorites, which, as the name suggests, come from two regionally recognized food trucks: Boston's Northeast of the Border and the legendary Papaya King in New York. These are two of the more popular roving restaurants that, as a category, are forecast to dish out some $2.7 billion in sales by next year.
A popular food-truck dish, the reasoning goes, can make a popular chip.
"As a consumer, I love food trucks—I lived off them in business school," said Wise Foods CMO Jeremy Bjork. "So when we were starting to taste different flavors being developed, I started to think: How do you tie all these together? And the first thing that popped into my head was food trucks. They have such a wide variety of flavors, some very exotic, and consumers love them."
Indeed they do. Food truck sales grew 12.4 percent between 2010 and 2015. There are an estimated 4,130 trucks operating nationally today, and many metro areas—the Twin Cities, Greensboro, N.C., and New York, among them—sponsor entire festivals around them. At SXSW, the food trucks seem to draw bigger crowds than some of the presenters.
But specifically for Wise, the advantage to partnering with trucks (whose owners signed off on the chip flavors named after their signature dishes) isn't so much with flavor but with the authenticity of that flavor. Pulling a mom-and-pop business into the brand picture instantly gives Wise chips local roots and the kind of scruffy personality that's generally hard for a national brand to muster. (It's also no coincidence that New York and Boston are already strong markets for the snack brand.)
"This is personal and local, which fits perfectly with Food Truck culture and allows Wise to participate in a sense of brand community," said Simon Thorneycroft, founder and CEO of Perspective: Branding, which designed the Food Truck Favorites packaging. "It's a smart way for them to build their portfolio—personalized taste experiences to build loyalty at a grass-roots level."
For Wise, pulling its flavor inspiration from a food truck menu isn't as unusual of an idea as it might seem. As Sterling-Rice Group culinary director Kara Nielsen points out, flavors of all sorts follow a migration pattern that frequently ends up in potato chips.
"We have to look at how flavor trends move and migrate," said Nielsen, citing wasabi as an example. Wasabi started out as a sushi condiment and then moved into grocery-store sushi sales before finally becoming a flavor suited to a chip (specifically, Lay's Kettle Cooked Wasabi Ginger Chips). "It takes years for the American food industry to appreciate a flavor and put that into a chip," Nielsen said, "but it's moving much more quickly."
Another advantage for Wise is the added marketing that comes from the food trucks turning their followers on to the existence of the chips.
— NEOTB Food Truck (@NEOTBtruck) April 15, 2016
Worthy as this may be as a marketing idea, is it difficult to make a potato chip taste like a New York-style chili cheese dog? "Yes—the answer is yes," Bjork says. "If you eat a real chili cheese dog, you get different flavors hitting your palate at different times. But [with a chip], having all the flavors of the seasoning hit at the same time turns a consumer off. The trick here is to try to have those combinations hit at different times."
Now that Wise has that formula down, expect more flavors (inspired by more food trucks) to make their debuts. "We want to make sure we refresh this every six months," Bjork said.