How one snack came to rule them all
I never got to meet Ray Charles or shake the hand of Mahatma Gandhi. And although I admire the dude who invented the wheel, nobody actually knows his name. But this past September, I did manage to speak to 97-year-old Arch West, a titan whose crowning achievement stands next to any of those guys’. What did he do? He invented the Dorito.
“I had an idea for a product in between potato chips and corn chips,” West told me shortly before his death, in what proved to be his final interview. That idea came almost 50 years ago. Today Doritos sells about $5 billion worth of chips annually. They’re as important a Super Bowl staple as over-the-top renditions of the national anthem and have developed a cultlike following among foodies and stoners alike. An all-American chip with a fake-Spanish name, Doritos have become one of our nation’s most distinctive exports. Even our sworn enemies can’t resist their triangular temptations. After Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006, his guards reported that his favorite snack was Doritos. Like so many of us, he loved them, even if he couldn’t quite explain why.
Frito-Lay has mashed up dozens of Doritos flavors, from Tailgater BBQ to Last Call Jalapeño Popper. Outside the U.S. they get seriously twisted: Care for some Winter Crab or Butter and Soy Sauce chips? But when Doritos debuted in 1966, they had just one flavor: toasted corn. West had sampled a proto-Dorito at a restaurant in San Diego and realized its potential. So the Dorito was born, made from yellow corn but with the size and texture of a potato chip.
West was a marketing vice president at Frito-Lay, and his invention circumvented the company’s R&D division. “Normally [new products] come out of the laboratory,” he chuckled, still savoring his end run around the bureaucracy. He picked the triangular shape to minimize waste. “You run the product on a belt and die-cut it,” West said. “If you make circles, you’ve got a lot of trim. So we said, ‘Let’s go with the triangles.’ ”
Doritos’ name came from a trip West took to Mexico, where he’d been attempting to register Frito as a trademark. “Turns out it’s too generic,” he said. “It just means ‘fried.’ ” He asked a local what color he thought Fritos were, since they weren’t quite yellow or brown. The answer was oro, Spanish for “gold.” Remembering that conversation, West added the “ito” suffix to emphasize that his new creation was part of the Fritos/Cheetos family, and said, “Let’s stick a D in front of it.” If he’d been in a different mood, we might all be eating Joritos or Zoritos.
The first flavored Doritos came about in 1967, intended for people who wanted a Mexican-style chip to bring something extra: taco! The iconic nacho cheese flavor —which now accounts for more than half of Doritos’ sales—wasn’t introduced until 1972. But the floodgates really opened in 1986, when Cool Ranch Doritos blew the collective minds of junk food addicts around the world. They were creamy, but with a kick: They tasted like they’d already taken a trip into a bowl of dip. They let the Frito-Lay corporation know that a Dorito can taste like pretty much anything their food scientists could concoct.
“I’ve eaten my share of Doritos,” confesses Grant Achatz, the award-winning chef at Chicago’s Alinea, and an admitted Cool Ranch aficionado. “If you grow up on something, it becomes an iconic flavor memory.” A few years ago Achatz replicated Cool Ranch Doritos for a course at Alinea: “In a perforated plate, we inserted micro-lettuces, herbs, carrots, and radishes, and we made our own Cool Ranch powder and tapped it through a sieve to dust them. It was kind of a whim¬sical riff—but if Doritos put a smile on your face, well, that’s what we try to do, too.”
At any given time Doritos has a dozen flavors on sale, from the extremely spicy—3rd Degree Burn: Scorchin’ Habanero and the wasabi-flavored Mr. Dragon’s Fire Chips—to those flavors aimed at the Harold and Kumar in all of us: Tacos at Midnight and Pizza Supreme. Yet another involves ill-advised experiments in PepsiCo corporate synergy, like the Quest, a mystery flavor that turned out to be Mountain Dew.
“You’ll think, Oh, I’m a genius; I just invented this new product!” says Michael Fox, director of marketing. “And an R&D guy will say, ‘You think you’re so smart, hotshot? We did this flavor 15 years ago.’ ”
Frito-Lay could easily season Doritos without the dust that ends up on your fingertips, but it was decided that the glowing orange residue is part of what Fox calls “the Doritos experience.” In fact, about 10 years ago Frito-Lay considered selling Doritos dust. (A note to Frito-Lay: Please sell Doritos dust! May we also suggest the following: nacho cheese-flavored taco shells; Doritos-O’s breakfast cereal; Doritos Fake Tanner, to give your whole body that orangey Dorito dust glow; a Pottery Barn couch whose cushions come preloaded with Dorito crumbs. You’re welcome.)
Things you think about when looking for that last chip in a bag: Is the Doritos burp an essential part of the Doritos experience? What would Warm Ranch Doritos taste
like? Can anyone tell all the flavors apart?
I decided to apply the scientific method to the last question: I hosted a Doritos-tasting party, serving eight flavors of chips in unmarked bowls. “Another nacho on your belt,” commented one guest.
The tangy Salsa Verde chips were the consensus favorite. The difference between Nacho Cheese and Spicy Nacho was so subtle as to be theological, and nobody could identify Pizza Supreme. Eight bowls of Doritos didn’t seem like enough, though, so I head to Texas. Specifically Irving, Texas, home to the flagship Frito-Lay plant. Operations manager Steven Segura agreed to walk me through production line TC-2, which churns out 2,650 pounds of Doritos an hour—that’s 50 tons of Doritos a day.
Wearing a hair net, protective goggles, and earplugs, I stand in front of a rail car filled with 220,000 pounds of Nebraska corn. “Specifically grown for Frito-Lay,” Segura brags. From the rail car, the corn goes into a silo and then to a room full of sifters, where air blowers separate bad kernels from good ones. Tubes blast the surviving corn into a bath of water and calcium hydroxide (a.k.a. lime), where it cooks for nine minutes. The next step is 10 to 18 hours in the soak tanks, where the corn loses any residual skin.
The production line is a cavernous industrial room with the deafening clatter of hundreds of machines cranking out snack food. But each step seems on a human scale, like a stainless-steel cooking machine you might have in your garage (if your hobby was soaking corn kernels). We walk beneath tubes that transport the corn to the “masa hog,” where it is stone-ground into a paste. It’s then squeezed into the sheeter, where large rollers flatten it and white plastic rollers die-cut the masa paste into triangles.
As we move down the production line, it seems devoid of employees. I expected a large crew of Doritos acolytes nervously supervising every step, but, no, the corn relentlessly becomes chips, apparently without human input. From the sheeter the chips travel to the oven, bake, then move to the cooker, where they’re fried in corn oil. As the warm triangular chips emerge, I eat one, fresh off the production line. OK, I eat more than one. They are delicious.
One step remains to turn these corn triangles into Doritos. A conveyer belt moves them into the seasoning drum, a stainless-steel barrel about the size of a Volkswagen. First the chips are sprayed with a mist of corn oil, then with a cloud of seasoning. The dust contains cheese and salt and artificial colors and flavor enhancers. Doritos exist at the exact point where naturally wholesome meets chemically synthetic—a contradiction wrapped in deliciousness.
Segura then takes me to the “quality lab,” where the Doritos are periodically compared to bags of reference chips for taste, texture, and appearance. Opening a bag and letting the Doritos spill out onto a white table, Segura says, “The perfect chip is a flat triangle with a certain number of blisters.” I put a Cool Ranch Dorito in my mouth and taste corn, cream, salt, and a hint of garlic. So I swallow it and pick up another one; it does indeed taste like the perfect chip. I will never have a more intense “Doritos experience”—unless I follow in Arch West’s footsteps and have everyone at my funeral throw a Dorito into my grave.