From the Archives: Zapp’s Potato Chips – Standing Up to Goliath

UPDATED: April 6, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 6, 2011

In just eight years of business, Ron Zappe’s potato chips have become as much a fixture in Cajun country as crawfish and hot sauce. Hard to believe that not long ago, Zappe – rhymes with “happy” – thought he might have to cash in his chips.

When Zappe cooked up one of the first Cajun snacks on the market, Zapp’s Cajun Craw-tators, the eye-watering delicacies became an overnight sensation. Even Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme was said to keep a stash in his pickup truck.

Then Goliath Frito-Lay arrived in town, hawking its own Cajun potato chip. “I expected them to put us out of business,” says the Bayou-based chip man.

So Zappe- a Captain Kangaroo look-alike of ample girth – assumed the role of nimble David. He had lost his last company, an oil-equipment firm, when the Texas Oil market went bust. This time, from his swampland headquarters in Gramercy, Louisiana, he fought back.

“I challenged the president of Frito-Lay to a duel,” Zappe declares. “Just us two potato-chip magnates.”

The Frito-Lay honcho ignored the public dare. But Zappe pressed the issue and wielded his two favorite weapons: cheap publicity and entrepreneurial daring.

Local papers wrote regular updates on their own Mr. Chips’ one-man crusade. The “duel” got Zapp’s Potato Chips plenty of free media coverage.

Meanwhile, Zappe boldly introduced new flavors, such as Cajun Dill and No Salt, and brought out glitzy packaging tied to regional events, including one that wished his customers a “Zappy Mardi Gras!”

In the end, not only did Zappe hold on to his snack-munching following, he credits Frito-Lay’s advertising campaign with his own explosive growth.

Zapp’s continues to enjoy a loyal following down South because it has limited its distribution to that region – any place within 350 miles of the “Little Chippery in Gramercy.” By catering to regional tastes “they can afford to experiment a little more,” observes Mark W. Allen, an Atlanta snack food industry analyst.

Today, Zapp’s kettle cooks 50,000 bags of Craw-tators and five other flavors of chips each day. While Zappe won’t divulge his revenues, published reports estimate his annual sales to be $3 million to $5 million. He does say the company is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year.

A small part of his business – perhaps 4 percent – comes from urgent mail-order deliveries, usually to homesick Southerners. Zapp’s spicy chips have been air-dropped to the South Pole and delivered to the White House. Hungry? Call 1-800-HOT-CHIP.