Food & Beverage

To create a chip flavor like wasabi ginger, Lay's starts with the real thing

Key Points
  • PepsiCo is bringing back Lay's flavors Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese, Cheesy Garlic Bread and Wasabi Ginger chips until Thanksgiving.
  • Before these bags make it onto shelves, they must be fine-tuned in the Frito-Lay test kitchen in Plano, Texas.
  • Each seasoning starts by making the real dish. That's where Frito-Lay executive chef Stephen Kalil comes in.
CNBC taste-tested these Frito-Lay chip flavors
CNBC taste-tested these Frito-Lay chip flavors

Three of Lay's most popular experimental flavors are back on shelves.

Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese, Cheesy Garlic Bread and Kettled Cooked Wasabi Ginger potato chips will be available until Thanksgiving as part of the Lay's Flavor All-Stars promotion. In its second year, the campaign opens the flavor vault to renew recipes from past initiatives like "Do Us a Flavor" and "Flavor Swap."

Flavors that veer from the traditional palette can unify and divide. A sample of CNBC'S newsroom with chips provided by PepsiCo revealed fans and critics. Nonetheless, the three flavors that were intended to mimic popular foods sparked conversation.

And that's exactly what Lay's wants.

"They tend to drive a lot of excitement, but they're not necessarily everyday choices," said Sarah Guzman, senior director of marketing for Lay's. "We want to make sure we have all the everyday choices when you walk into the store but also keep things exciting and innovative on a regular basis."

Offering creative flavors for a limited time drives excitement that might encourage shoppers to toss a bag of chips into their cart, Guzman said. Before these bags make it onto shelves, they must be fine-tuned in the Frito-Lay test kitchen in Plano, Texas.

The first step in trying to make a potato chip taste like, say, Southern biscuits and gravy, is creating the actual dish. Stephen Kalil, executive chef of Frito-Lay, and his team concoct their ideal recipe. That can sometimes be a challenge because people have different ideas of what foods and flavors should taste like.

"We try to evaluate what types of experience consumers are having with that food with that very high level in the marketplace. We also look at diverse and different executions, and we see the breadth of flavor differences that are converging, and we bring them together so the flavor delivers against what we promised it would taste like and what tastes good on a potato chip," Kalil said.

Once the so-called gold standard dish is made, the culinary team identifies the food's flavor profile. In other words, they identify each flavor present, how intense they are and at what point you taste them.

Kalil compares flavors to music notes. Like music notes, flavors can be played at different volumes or intensities. They can come in stabbing or fade out. Their qualities can be manipulated, like roasting garlic or serving it raw, just like composers can choose what instrument to play the note on.

From there the culinary team, food scientists and flavor and seasoning specialists develop the seasoning. The recipes and the ingredients used to make them are company secrets. They use technology that allows people to taste flavors at different times and at different levels during the approximately 20 seconds it takes to eat a chip.

The team tinkers with the recipe until they're satisfied with the taste. How long the process can take varies, but it can take eight weeks or more to perfect a recipe.

Despite Frito-Lay's best attempts, not everyone finds the flavors realistic. One CNBC employee compared the flavor of bacon cheddar mac & cheese to stale barbecue. Another said the cheesy garlic bread was a faithful representation of garlic bread, while others said it tasted nothing like it.

The overwhelming favorite was wasabi ginger. Nearly everyone who tried it said it tasted like the real thing. By the end of the day, the bag was empty while the two others were not.

Sample parties at the office are not uncommon, Guzman said.

"A lot of people do that, and it's really fun. We tend to get a lot of feedback," she said. "People tend to have different front-runners."

Frito-Lay has experimented with its other chip brands, too. It has made a Doritos ranch dipped hot wings flavor and a Ruffles bacon and cheddar flavor.

Where Lay's chips flavor ideas start depends. Fans submit "Do Us a Flavor" ideas, but Frito-Lay also develops its own sometimes. When that happens, Kalil's team still tries to engage customers.

One time, they wanted to base a lemon black pepper flavor to sell in Saudi Arabia on a creamy lemon and black pepper risotto. They invited people to come sample the dish before they translated the taste into a seasoning. They shot it down.

"It meant nothing to them," Kalil said. "They were completely confused and told us stories of having guests at their house with fresh baked bread and pouring olive oil and fresh lemon juice with cracked black pepper, heating it and dipping it and talking with their friends. We had to go back and re-create that experience."

Initiatives like "Do Us a Flavor" helps Frito-Lay interact with customers and learn what flavors they want, Kalil said. However, that doesn't mean PepsiCo will turn anything into a chip flavor. Just because people want an exotic flavor and the company has the capability to create the flavor doesn't mean they'll do it.

One of the criteria? It has to taste good on a chip.