Potato chips inspire the same kind of regional loyalty as oysters, fast-food burgers and barbecue. If you're from Pennsylvania, it's Utz; from New Orleans, you'll want Zapp's; but if you grew up in Seattle, your chip allegiance belongs to Tim's Cascade. It's not (only) because of some overwrought sense of nostalgia. Even after multiple sales and the retirement of Tim himself, Tim's continues to be a Northwest company through and through.
These days, Tim Kennedy lives in the Walla Walla Valley, where he runs a vineyard and wine company. But in 1986, he'd just sold off his shares of a Texas-based potato chip company and returned to the Pacific Northwest, where he'd grown up and lived on and off for years. He, along with his then brother-in-law, Jeff Leichleiter, and a few other family members, started Tim's Cascade Style Potato Chips.
Back then, everything was done by hand. In a 2003 interview with MOHAI, Kennedy described the process: "We used to walk up a ladder and spice those babies by hand as they went by." Those days--and Kennedy--are gone now.
Leichleiter now runs the company and its Auburn-based factory, though it's owned by Pinnacle Foods, out of New Jersey. Tim's still works with some of the same local Washington farmers with whom they initially contracted, and many products are distributed by the same small business operations the company helped to build up when they first started. Since Kennedy retired ten years ago, Leichleiter has worked to keep the same culture (and many of the same people) as when Kennedy was there, and as the founder intended. He still stops by, says Leichleiter, and sees that not too much has changed.
When the company first began, Kennedy, Leichleiter, and the rest of their crew went out to every local store, from the big grocery groups to the tiny gas station convenience stores, shaking hands and handing out chips to get their product on shelves. QFC, in the pre-Kroger era, was one of their biggest buyers, along with now-defunct Larry's Market and Olson's Food Stores. With a limited marketing budget, they could get word out about their chips only through word-of-mouth, and that meant passing out as many bags as they could, getting it onto as many shelves as possible. And it worked: "After the first two years," Leichleiter says, "We couldn't keep up." Instead of pounding pavement, people were calling them and asking to sell the chips.
The local potatoes and (at the time) 100% peanut oil frying process, combined with Kennedy's experience in the potato-frying business, gave Tim's an early leg up in starting the company, but the creative flavors were what really produced rabid fans of the brand.
"Flavors and people are really regional," Leichleiter says of why potato chips tend to inspire such loyalties to the hometown brand. But there is, of course, also a business reason--with the space necessary for such a light product and the fragile nature of potato chips, it's expensive to send them around the country. Still, the notion of our locally-groomed taste buds is a romantic one.
The romanticism and nostalgia don't explain why the jalapeño flavor--with nothing to do with the Northwest--has been the best-seller from the beginning. It was actually developed by Kennedy at a previous company. That Texas-based company, was searching for something that represented the flavor of the state. When Kennedy returned to Seattle and started Tim's, he brought the idea with him.
Coney Island (hot dog and mustard) another early hit, later discontinued, is now getting a second life as Tim's re-releases it in celebration of the company's 30th anniversary. While some flavors--sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar--remain stalwarts, others come and go. Longtime Tim's eaters remember flavors such as wasabi, habanero, Cajun, Johnny's, and more. Leichleiter says not to count any of them out; they keep them in the vault for possible re-release (like the Coney Island), while they continue to experiment and see what else they can come up with. He wouldn't spill any secrets on what was coming up next, but he did promise that, after many terrible attempts, the company had given up on the dream of a pizza-flavored potato chip.