Aug. 08--Mmmm, doesn't a nice, hot cup of potato chip-flavored coffee sound good right about now? No? Well, how about a bag of potato chips flavored like coffee?
If that sounds yummy, then do I have good news for you.
The professional marketers at Lays are again foisting a set of experimental flavors on the unsuspecting public, and asking for votes to crown a winner that Lays may or may not keep -- depending on how much you trust the integrity of potato chip Democracy.
Besides "Bacon Mac & Cheese," and "Mango Salsa," and "Wasabi Ginger," there's the alarmingly bold "Cappuccino"-flavored chip.
As a product-watcher, this reminds me of other great things that stand strong on their own, but perhaps less so together: mayonnaise and chocolate, plaid and polka dots, Florida and summer.
Yet, this is a Golden Age of product mashups and cross-promotional branding. We have King Ranch-branded Ford pickups, so suburbanites can pretend they're ready for a cattle drive across Texas. We have Doritos-branded tacos at Taco Bell so diners can pretend they're not adding a point or two to their cholesterol level with delicious, delicious taco goodness. And we have "Duck Dynasty" branded Mossberg shotguns -- a natural tie-up if you ask me, surpassed only by the "Duck Dynasty" daily devotional. (Let us look skywards, give thanks to our Creator, and blast the heads off some Mallards.)
The humble potato chip, however, has functioned through the decades as the blank canvas upon which we sprinkle all of America's taste trends. They started with the aptly named "plain" varietal, then expanded with barbecue, and then a few flavors more. I distinctly remember my youth when a family friend brought over the first bag of "Salt and Vinegar" chips. The first taste was explosive, probably because it was too heavy on the vinegar, but eye-opening nonetheless.
Then the varieties exploded: Low-fat, gluten-free, ancient grains, pita chips, sweet potato chips, veggie/puff chips, and flax seed chips. Personally, "flax" always strikes me as something akin to "hardtack" and "fatback," or maybe was used as a spiritual/medical treatment that the elders of Salem, Massachusetts, might try on witches. "We hereby sentence the prisoner to 100 bowls of flax!"
Chip variety now comes in such diversity that some grocery stores maintain a kind of Protestant/Catholic schism in the aisles, with one side devoted to "healthy" chips and the other packed with Funyuns and Doritos. Sriracha-flavored Pringles were a marketing master stroke at the crest of the flavor's hipness.
Any self-respecting hipster restaurant now has house-made, gourmet potato chips, sometimes fried in duck fat, seasoned with Himalayan salt and served in an architecturally interesting bowls.
Rather than exhaustively describe my own experience tasting Lays Cappuccino chips, which resembled a mime begging for the Heimlich, I took a few bags to some real coffee experts. Here's what happened:
--Rosanna Rivera, co-owner of the Piquant French bistro in Hyde Park Village, which prides itself of high-end coffees: "It's pretty good," she said cautiously, though she declined to have more. "A little bit too sweet for me, but yeah, not bad." Sweet? What's going on here?
--Ricardo Rivera, the other co-owner and chef of Piquant, and a self-described coffee snob: "Hum, interesting," he said, twisting his face a bit. "I can taste coffee, that's for sure. Nothing else, just coffee." After some time diligently picking chip debris from their teeth, both Rosanna and Ricardo detected flavor notes of powdered creamer, as if Lays took a bag o' chips and dumped in a bunch of Coffee Mate. Hence the sweetness.
--"They smell like Snickerdoodles," said Josh Bonanno, the Buddy Brew Kennedy Boulevard Shop Manager, sticking his nose in the bag for a deep whiff. "It's like a cookie," Bonanno said, but instead of a sweet aftertaste, there's a glue-like creaminess that bonds the throat on the way down. He noted the irony that Lays is launching a coffee-flavored potato chip, just as African coffee growers now face a disturbing "Potato Taste Defect" affliction, caused when certain insects bite the coffee bean fruit while still on the tree. The result is a coffee that tastes like bitter, uncooked potato.
--"It's sweet, almost carmelly something," said David Ward, co-owner of the Buddy Brew coffee company.
--"It definitely tastes like coffee, like bad coffee," said Nate Cochran, Buddy Brew barista. "That's pretty horrible."
Like any good "Let the People Decide" brand contest, the individual candidates in Lays contest may matter less than the total variety. There must be Good Guys, and Bad Guys, and Divas and Victims to drive the drama. TV producers know that every archetypal viewer must find themselves reflected somewhere in the TV show cast, otherwise there's even less reason to watch Big Brother or Real Housewives.
Perhaps this is why the current Lays lineup includes Wasabi Ginger. Everyone who tried those also tried to steal the whole bag. I had to put them under lock and key in the newsroom.
Cochran of Buddy Brew did have one suggestion to improve Cappuccino chips. Turn them into puffs, and pour them into a bowl with milk. Make a Coffee Breakfast Cereal for grownups -- caffeine included. Now, there's an idea for a product mashup! Your move, Kellogg's.