How Bankruptcy Inspired a Houston Entrepreneur to Create the South's Favorite Potato Chips

Zapp's Potato Chips and Wickles Pickles
Photo: Charles Walton

Ron Zappe knew what he wanted to be in life—and it had nothing to do with potato chips.

Zappe graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in industrial engineering. He went into business distributing pumps and other equipment in the oil fields, launching four separate companies all built around the oil industry. However, when oil went bust in the 1980s, so did his companies. Zappe found himself bankrupt and without a vision for the future. That all changed when his wife went to the grocery store.

The family had moved from Houston to Louisiana in search of new opportunity and Zappe found it in a bag of potato chips. Zappe's wife had purchased a bag of Texas-made kettle-fried chips. His wife saw a snack, and Zappe saw an opportunity to make a similar chip in Louisiana. "My wife, Anne, thought I'd gone nuts,'' Zappe once said, according to his obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "But I told her, 'No, not nuts, chips.''

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Zappe wanted to get right to work, but with four closed businesses on his resume and an idea that boiled down to nothing more than tasty chips, banks weren't too keen on lending him the money he needed to start frying potatoes. "I asked 10 banks for a loan to begin the venture and they all laughed me out of the office,'' he said. "The 11th finally gave me my start. I never gave up. That's the secret.''

After his $150,000 in funding was secured, Zappe converted a former Chevrolet dealership in Gramercy, Louisiana, near New Orleans into a potato chip manufacturing plant. He started making a thicker-cut chip, kettle-fried in peanut oil. The Zapp's factory became a local attraction, drawing in teens looking for a place to park. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Zappe told Oprah Winfrey on her show in 1997: "We made chips on the showroom floor and teenagers would park outside, watch us like a movie and do a lot of kissing."

Zappe knew how to hustle and while building the business, he could be spotted handing out free samples of his chips at busy intersections in East Jefferson. The hard work paid off, as did the constant flavor innovation. Zapp's put out Cajun Crawtators way back in 1985, which company officials claim was the nation's first spicy potato chip.

Zappe had some clever business ideas, too. He teamed up with LSU for their first officially licensed food product— Zapp's Tiger Tators—and sold Who Dat? chips to the New Orleans Saints football team. He also came up with 1-800-HOT-CHIP the hotline for all your urgent Zapp's needs.

While Zappe has passed on, his company is still churning out incredibly tasty chips in wild flavors (Jalapeno, Cajun Dill) in their chip-making facilities around the county. And to think, if it wasn't for the Texas oil bust in the 1980s the world may never have known the joy of snacking on a bag of Zapp's VooDoo potato chips at a summer picnic.

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