KANSAS CITY — Potato chips have always been a favorite indulgence because they are familiar and satisfying, and they taste great. These attributes catered to consumers’ need for comfort food, driving potato chip sales during the pandemic. The category posted the most growth of all salty snack categories with an increase of almost $50.8 million in sales for the first three months of 2020, as compared with 2019, according to Information Resources, Inc. retail sales figures for the US snacking market.

Potato chips have long been a pioneering staple on pantry shelves. As stay-at-home orders were put in place, demand for core snacks exploded as people rushed to fill their cupboards with their favorite snack foods.

“This overnight change in behavior brought consumers to the snack aisle in record numbers and that behavior continues now as states and cities emerge in different stages and reveal the new normal,” said Matt Colford, director of marketing and strategic selling, North America, Old Dutch Foods, Roseville, Minn.

Innovation with products like kettle-cooked chips has led to category growth. The extra crunchy batch-cooked bite and unique flavors for this chip segment resonates with consumers. Kettle chips’ popularity is evidenced by the double-digit growth for Campbell Snacks’, Camden, NJ, Kettle brand (18.4%) and the Old Dutch Crunch product line (18.5%).

“Our Dutch Crunch kettle chips have been in markets for nearly 30 years,” Mr. Colford said. “Our success stems from combining mainstream seasonings intertwined with boutique offerings, such as Bacon Ranch and Prime Rib. Our recent flavor-fusion profile, Sour Cream and Dill Pickle, is fast becoming a best seller.”

In recent years, producers have responded to consumer preference for healthier snacks by lowering salt and using quality oils with health benefits. Utz’s Boulder Canyon brand of craft kettle-cooked potato chips are cooked in healthier oils like avocado, coconut, olive, sunflower, safflower and rice bran, which also add distinct flavor. Hanover, Pa.-based Utz launched Boulder Canyon’s Gourmet Medley Kettle Style Potato Chips.

Consumers are looking for enhanced nutrition with added functional ingredients in snacks, according to Packaged Facts’ “US Food Market Outlook 2020” report updated in June. They seek healthier, better-for-you snacks, as long as they still taste good and are indulgent.

“We, and others in our industry, have long realized that consumers could have an amazing taste experience along with great dietary attributes," Mr. Colford said.

Snack manufacturers are evolving to provide snacks with the better-for-you attributes that consumers demand. However, great taste is primarily what keeps snackers coming back for more.

“Herr Foods launched several new items this year, but the most exciting currently is our Herr’s Flavor Mix potato chips,” said Jim E. Herr, senior vice president of marketing and R&D, Herr Foods, Inc., Nottingham, Pa.

Herr’s new Flavor Mix varieties include Cheddar and Sour Cream and Onion; Barbecue and Salt and Vinegar; and Red Hot and Honey Barbecue.

Since the start of 2020, Wise Food has seen tremendous growth in the company's portfolio, noted Guillermo Aponte, chief executive officer, Wise Foods Inc., Berwick, Pa.

“We delayed our innovation launches until the second semester in order to focus on the production and distribution of our core products,” he said. “Stronger emphasis will be placed on variety packs to appeal to the new consumption occasions and party sizes. We plan to launch bold, new flavors in all Wise snack categories, including potato chips.” 

Limited-time offerings (LTOs) allow producers to get creative with new products and flavors for short periods and test consumer appeal. Campbell’s Cape Cod Summer Limited Edition potato chips were introduced as a chip-beer pairing in partnership with Sam Adams.

In July, Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, launched Lay’s Flavor Icons, a new line of limited-batch potato chips inspired by dishes served at restaurants across the nation.

“The new restaurant-inspired Lay’s may just offer the best of both worlds in the current environment,” said Jen Crichton, brand communications director, Frito-Lay.

Going forward, value will play a critical role, especially depending on economic recovery. However, people will still want to treat themselves to little indulgences to feel better.