Walk along the snack aisle at any supermarket and you’ll be greeted by an endless selection of potato chips. On a recent afternoon, I spotted at least ten, many of which proudly display the words “kettle cooked” or “kettle style” as a paean to a healthier choice. Without much thought, I reached for a bag of Honey Dijon Kettle Chips for the irresistible crunch and full flavor that is in every bag I’ve ever purchased.
Even though I’ve never visited its Salem, Oregon facility, I’ve always felt a kinship toward the Kettle brand, for its proximity is a source of local pride. Plus, it always makes for a great selection at the supermarket. Little did I know that Kettle Chips’ exposure reaches far beyond the Pacific Northwest. In the US, it’s known as Kettle Brand, but in Europe, they’re called Kettle Chips, and in the UK, simply Kettle. With slightly different flavors but similar bold and colorful packaging, Kettle has reached a vast network of consumers around the world, people who love its crunch as much as I do.
How does Kettle manage to win the hearts and minds of so many people with its potato chips? What is the secret to the delicious crunch? How did the brand pave the way for others to follow? To find out the answers, we must go back in time to late 1970s America, well before natural foods became a ubiquitous part of our lives.
The year was 1978, and Cameron Healy wanted to bring people delicious food that was also good for them. But he didn’t start off with kettle chips. Instead, he sold roasted nuts and cheese in the back of a van to natural food stores.
It wasn’t until 1982 when Healy stumbled upon some homemade potato chips being served on a Hawaiian beach and a lightbulb went off. He switched gears and instead, focused on creating the best potato-style chip as possible. Soon, Kettle Chips was born. Six years later, Healy visited the UK with his son and discovered the Brits’ love for potato chips, which they call “crisps.” He expanded his business to the UK and opened a factory in Norfolk, a farming region on the eastern tip of the country known for growing potatoes.
To this day, Kettle still produces its chips at the Norfolk facility, and most of the potatoes are grown within 30 miles of Norwich, a city in Norfolk County.
Unlike its neighbors on the shelf, such as Lay’s or Ruffles, Kettle Chips are not created equal. This is because of the way they’re cooked—a process called batch cooking. While other companies use a continuous fry process, which involves running the chips through a vat of hot oil and continuously drying them in a conveyor belt, batch cooking involves rinsing the potato slices in cold water to release starch, stirring them in an oil-filled kettle, and cooking at low temperatures (about 300° Fahrenheit); the chips are continuously raked by an employee to prevent them from sticking together. This is done, as the name suggests, in batches.
As each new batch of cold potatoes enters the vat, the temperature of the oil drops. Because the air in the fryer cools down after each batch of chips, the result is a crunchier chip shaped differently than its neighbors in the same bag but all beautiful and golden in color.
Kettle Chips is not the only company that uses this approach. Cape Cod Potato Chips, another kettle chip company, cooks its chips in a similar fashion. Since Kettle became popular, other companies have followed the kettle-cooked phenomenon. These days, Walmart, Lay’s, Hawaiian, and Miss Vickie’s all have their own version of the kettle chip—perfect for a summer barbecue or late-night snack session.
Kettle Brand’s commitment to being an “all-natural, non-GMO,” zero-waste brand extends to many of its operational decisions. The Salem, Oregon manufacturing facility is located next to a two-acre wetland, complete with hiking trails, plants, and wildlife. Employees are encouraged to take their breaks with nature right outside their door.
Inside the facility, the plant uses a special type of potato called the russet Burbank potato, or what they call a “high sugar potato.” The potatoes are cooked with safflower oil, chosen because of its neutral taste. In keeping with the zero-waste approach, the oil gets reused in company vehicles as an alternative fuel source. On the rooftops, more than 600 solar panels work to generate more power while reducing CO2 emissions. The company purchases wind energy credits and has done so since 2006.
Both Kettle in the US and Kettle UK have in-house chefs who innovate with new flavors. Therefore, you might see a new flavor at your local store several times a year. It’s this constant innovation and commitment to cooking by hand that makes the product such a welcome addition to many households’ snack cabinets, including mine.
It’s worth noting that Kettle Brand (US), Kettle (UK), and Kettle Chips (Europe) are part of different conglomerates. In America, Kettle is owned by Campbell’s, joining the ranks of Cape Cod Potato Chips. In Europe and the UK, the brand has been owned by the consumer goods giant Valeo Foods Group since 2019.
In the UK, Kettle is the third largest sharing snack brand. As of 2017, it boasts a 9% market share, with 250,000 bags sold every day, with even more exported overseas to 23 countries.
As evident in the purchase patterns and consumption in the UK and in Europe, people simply love potato chips. In 2018, savory snacks (such as chips) accounted for 17 billion euros in sales, with Netherlands and Spain accounting for a good majority this consumption, eating more than the 4 kg (8 lbs.) per capita on average.
Imagine eating eight pounds of chips every year. That’s a lot of chips. But then again, when it comes to the crunch of a kettle-cooked chip, it’s easy to see how you might make it past that threshold.