By Cindy Rinker Turns out, the perfect place for a potato chip factory is in Shenandoah County, in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. “This is just the perfect place,” Sarah said with a smile, gesturing at the space surrounding her. Cohen founded Route 11 Potato Chips in 1992. From its humble beginning with Sarah and one other staff member, the factory has grown to a facility that employs 45 people. They now run two shifts and will chip between 15,000 and 30,000 pounds of potatoes a day, depending on demand and time of year. The gleaming facility is open to the public Monday through Saturday, and if the factory is chipping, visitors are permitted to view the process from well-placed windows that will take you from the chip room to the area where each chip is hand seasoned to the area where the chips are funneled into bags that are heat sealed and cut apart for sale. Some visitors seem to stumble across the factory and others make it a destination, noted Sarah. “We welcome everyone.” The public viewing windows into the factory are clear evidence of Route 11’s commitment to “make an outstanding product in a safe and clean environment.” Cohen, and her business partner, Michael Connelly, are committed to making their factory as waste free as possible. The factory, which was constructed in 2008, was built thoughtfully with an eye to best practices and eco-friendliness. The factory faces south for optimal sunlight and warmth in the winter, and the roof is made of white membrane that reflects sunlight and heat in the summer. Used oil heats the maintenance shop and heat from the cooker exhaust is recycled using a heat exchanger. Potato peels and rejected chips are picked up by a local farmer and fed to his cows. They even recover dirt from the potatoes and make topsoil out of it. The chips come in 10 flavors, not counting an unsalted chip that is completely plain. Route 11’s first new flavor in 12 years is Salt and Pepper which debuted this year. “This took a lot of time because we could not find just the right salt and we wanted it to be just salt and cracked pepper, no other filler seasonings.” Eventually, they came across a salt that is harvested near Charleston, WV, from a salt deposit more than 400 feet below the Appalachian Mountains. “There is something magical about this salt,” said Sarah, “that made it work.” The other flavors are Lightly Salted, Barbeque, Salt N Vinegar, Dill Pickle, Sour Cream N Chive, Chesapeake Crab, Mama Zuma’s Revenge, Sweet Potato and Yukon Gold. “Each flavor has its own backstory,” said Sarah. To read these stories, go to the company website at Route 11. In the summertime, Route 11 gets its potatoes, more than a million pounds, from a potato farmer in Dayton, just below Harrisonburg. As the weather cools, they will get potatoes from Pennsylvania and then New York. In the winter, the potatoes come from Florida and southern climes until they are available in Virginia again. The Sweet Potato chips are seasonal and only available October through May. The factory does run year-round, Sarah said, adding that there is demand throughout the year, though summer is the busiest time for the factory. The name of the chip factory obviously comes from the road that its first factory was located on in Middletown. But Route 11 is also a metaphor. “Route 11 is slower, maybe an old-fashioned way to travel instead of the interstate,” she said. On Route 11, travelers are going to see the sites and not feel so rushed. The Route 11 Potato Chip is “an unhurried chip,” Sarah said. A typical big-name chip is mass-produced in 30 seconds while a Route 11 Chip takes 8 minutes. “People today are more interested in where their food comes from and how it is made,” said Sarah. “I think that is why we are picking up in popularity. That and word of mouth.” Oh, yes. Word of mouth. One delicious bag of chips does make the mouth want to sing the praises of this “unhurried” brand created in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. You will find Route 11 racks in convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants and other locations throughout the region. The Mount Jackson facility also has a retail store and orders are taken online as well as over the phone.
Cindy Earehart Rinker is a writer and storyteller with Write Words of Shenandoah County.