At Kettle brand Chips’ Salem headquarters, a tanned, fit woman primly bites down on a chip. She freezes, then nods as she munches on. “This one’s got a really nice, clean lime hit ... and a kind of smoky attribute,” Carolyn Ottenheimer murmurs. “Our flavors have gotta be bold.”
The first sea salt–sprinkled chip rolled off this Oregon-founded, all-natural empire’s conveyor belt 30 years ago. For the past 13 of those years, Ottenheimer has guarded the successful brand’s boldness, steering flavors like Spicy Thai, Sweet Onion, and Buffalo Bleu onto plates alongside seemingly every café sandwich in Portland. The 42-year-old Eastern Washington native formulates at least 15 new test flavors a year, most of which will never be crushed by consumer molars.
“There was a time when they were trying to get us to do coffee-flavored chips,” she mentions with a slow, sad shake of her head. “That was horrible.”
The search for something more acceptable starts with Ottenheimer thumbing through cooking magazines to target new food trends, or scouring condiment aisles. Kettle collaborates with independent “seasoning houses” to craft multiple versions of each proposed flavor.
Ottenheimer and her crew of six to 10 R&D tasters then give each idea a nibble. “We say, ‘The onion is too toasted; we want more of a green onion,’” she says. “Or, ‘The tomato was too canned tomato.’” Over six months or more, the team usually winnows the field to two flavors. The company generally launches only one or two new flavors a year.
Ottenheimer started as a restaurant inspector. But after a meeting with a Kettle exec in 1999, soon after she graduated from Oregon State University’s Food Science masters program, the company decided to create a hybrid food scientist/quality control position, banking on her combination of flavor-development knowledge and technical training. That same year, she created Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper chips, now one of the company’s best sellers of its 32 current flavors.
San Francisco–based Diamond Foods bought Kettle in 2010 for $615 million, but the vibe at its tidy Salem factory is still charmingly Beaver State. Rehabbed wetlands filled with trails and herons begin only feet from the front door. Everything smells deliciously of fried spuds, as if the entire factory were caught inside a jumbo bag of Kettle Chips.
Ottenheimer produces three small plastic bags of unreleased experiments, the words “pizza,” “pesto,” and “savory stuffing” scrawled on the sides in black Sharpie.
“I can see the bubbling cheese,” she says, waving a “pizza” chip. “But there’s a little too much bitterness from the basil at the end.”