Take a Chip Trip to Route 11’s Factory

Posted February 28, 2007 at 4:52pm

Just past the only stoplight in Middletown, Va., sits an unassuming white building draped in Christmas lights with a bright red door. If you didn’t know any better, you’d likely drive right by without a second glance — but, lucky for you, now you’ll know better. [IMGCAP(1)]

The building houses Route 11 Potato Chips, aptly named for the road it sits on. It’s here that the company churns out its 14 flavors of hand-cooked potato chips. And when you stop by, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be unable to resist grabbing a handful of freshly made chips still warm from the cooker.

Owner Sarah Cohen, a Washington, D.C., native, started Route 11 chips in 1992 in an old feed store around the corner from its current location with just one cooker and one other employee. Since then, the business has come a long way as it now boasts three cookers and 33 full-time employees.

“We started really slowly,” Cohen said, adding that running a potato chip company was never a dream. “It took a year to get a packaging machine … [it was] not an easy journey.”

But the journey seemingly has paid off for Cohen, who knew she “wanted to do something high quality.”

Route 11 chips are hand cooked — the mantra “The best things in life are still made by hand” even graces the front of the bag for some of the flavors. For Cohen, quality always has been of the utmost importance from the start. She said the company has an “old traditional style” to making its chips. “We haven’t become victims of efficiency,” Cohen said.

The current building, which Route 11 moved to in 1997, allows visitors a glimpse of the chip-making process through three windows looking into the production area. The cooker closest to the windows (the one Cohen originally started out with) can produce 60 pounds of chips per hour and holds a 55 gallon drum of oil. In addition, Route 11 has two cookers in the back that each can produce 150 pounds of chips per hour.

Employees work in shifts throughout the week, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 2 to 10 p.m. Those shifts produce a total of 13 hours of cooking time daily, Cohen said. (Thirteen hours of cooking time per day with, if all three cookers are going, 360 pounds of chips being produced per hour … well, you do the math.)

One would think potato chips are popular year-round, however, Office Manager Donna Lilly said things tend to slow down in January and February. And the busiest months for chips at Route 11? You guessed it — November and December. What better gift to give or receive than hand-cooked potato chips?

Back in ’92, the company started out simple, producing its lightly salted chips. Now offering 14 flavors — that includes the sweet potato chips and the two seasonal specialties, Hayman and Yukon Gold — Cohen said it still all goes back to the beginning, as the lightly salted chips account for 75 percent of Route 11’s sales.

“We cook Lightly Salted more than anything,” Cohen wrote in an e-mail. “We usually cook Lightly Salted and then one other flavor a day.” (During a recent Saturday visit, Under Your Nose had the pleasure of sampling sweet potato chips straight from the cooker.)

While being in the potato chip business might sound like a sweet deal, Cohen admitted that she’s hit some rough spots along the way.

“Just as I was losing hope in making the factory really work, [Engineer and Plant Manager Michael Connelly] came along in 2001 and made a hugely positive impact on how this factory operates,” Cohen wrote. “He’s fanatical about doing EVERYTHING the right way and it’s essential to have someone like that on board when you’re making a food product. He put the wind back in our sails and helped make this next chapter possible.”

The next chapter for Route 11 Potato Chips officially will start in July, when it moves into its new facility — designed by Connelly — down the road in Mount Jackson, Va.

While production is moving to the new facility, the current building in Middletown will remain open and continue to sell the hand-cooked chips.

The new factory will allow those curious about the chip-making process to see more of it — in addition to the cooking, they’ll also be able to see the seasoning, weighing and packaging.

There came a point in time where Cohen said she needed to decide whether to “grow or go out of business.” Chip lovers out there can rest easy, however, because Route 11 Potato Chips isn’t going anywhere … except about 30 miles south.

Route 11 Potato Chips, 7815 Main St., Middletown, VA 22645; 800-294-7783; www.rt11.com. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.