Thursday, June 3, 2010

A chip off the old bloke

Ron Zappe, the founder of Zapp's Potato Chips in Gramercy, Louisiana passed away on Tuesday in Houston, where he was undergoing treatment for cancer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. A Houston oil industry engineer whose companies went bankrupt in the oil bust of the 1980's, Zappe moved to Louisiana to start up his "little chippery." It took a lot of guts and even more convincing to get the necessary financing for his envisioned potato chip business. Starting with a shell of a building that formerly housed a car dealership, he began to fry his own chips on site, inviting bystanders to sample his wares. Zappe was a tireless promoter of the thick chips fried in kettles of peanut oil that became his famous trademark. A showman and a flamboyant personality, Zappe never let an opportunity pass by where he couldn't promote himself or his tasty products. The most famous of his line was the super spicy and hot Cajun Crawtators, introduced 25 years ago. Zapp's employees would delight in throwing cartons of chips to waiting Mardi Gras parade fans in several parades leading up to the big day. Zappe himself would donate much of his product line to food banks and to the Red Cross, according to news accounts. He was unflappable and unstoppable if a microphone got in his way. Zappe recognized the importance of appealing to every segment of the marketplace. Zapp's licensed potato chips to local sports franchises L.S.U. (Tiger Tators) and to the NFL's New Orleans Saints (Who Dat? Chips), even when a Super Bowl championship was in doubt. Back in the 1990's he was approached by a local Jewish group seeking his okay to have his entire product line designated as kosher. It was revealed to Zappe that only about one to two percent of the population kept kosher for religious reasons, but that a larger share of the market (vegetarians, vegans, etc.) used kosher designations for making their purchasing decisions. The upfront fee for the supervision was just the beginning of associated costs for the designation of kosher such as redesigning packages with the kosher symbol and adhering to specific methods for maintaining the kosher status of his facilities. But Zappe was a wise businessman. He more than recouped his initial investment for the supervision within the first year and his company's sales figures have increased significantly, even in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Zappe was a guest at the Jeux To Deux fundraiser for Torah Academy a few years ago, appearing in a colorfully attired and flashy set of white tails. As one might suspect, he was extremely popular and his enthusiasm for the school and his promotion of Zapp's Chips were both highly appreciated. I actually saw him on the streets of New Orleans driving to yet another affair not so long ago. Among the more unusual characters in a city famous for unusual characters, Ron Zappe stood out. His business remains to carry on his legacy with about 200 employees on the payrolls. Zappe is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

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