The first barbecue-flavored potato chips were developed by Herr’s in its Nottingham, Pennsylvania, factory in 1958. (Lay’s didn’t add the flavor until 1965.) Since then, various combinations of powdered ingredients have made barbecue a flagship flavor for most potato chip companies.
While unique interpretations like Bourbon BBQ and Korean Barbeque from Kettle Brand and East African Barbecue Chili from Green Sahara have expanded the genre, there hasn’t been any real innovation in barbecue potato chips since the first one was introduced. That’s what Low and Slow cofounder Jared Drinkwater was looking to change when he threw some corn chips into his backyard smoker in 2019.
Barbecue chips made from potato, corn, and tortillas are the current focus of the snack company, but the barbecue flavor doesn’t just come from seasonings. These chips are smoked with hickory wood just before they’re bagged. You might find mesquite or hickory called out on the labels of other chips, but those flavors come from a powder derived from liquid smoke. Most barbecue chip producers try to emulate barbecue sauce (besides the Bohemia brand from the Czech Republic that had a soft launch in Texas a decade ago). The majority of commercial sauces are sweet, and nearly all the ones on grocery store shelves contain liquid smoke, so it makes sense that the barbecue chips you’ve eaten use those same ingredients.
Drinkwater said he’s trying to think about his product in a different way. “How do you make a chip that’s really authentic to people who know barbecue? The only way to do that is to smoke it,” he said. And that puff of smoky air is one of the coolest things about the product. There’s an unmistakable aroma when you pull open a fresh bag. It’s like the smell of fresh tennis balls that only comes when you pop open a can. The smoke isn’t visible, but the smell is powerful enough that your nose may convince your brain it’s there. The chips only come in five-ounce bags for now, so I asked Drinkwater if they’d come in smaller bags in the future so I could have that experience more often. “Soon,” he said.
As for the flavor, the smoke’s bark is worse than its bite. I wouldn’t call the smoke flavor subtle, but as Drinkwater explains, “We’re straddling a fine line between being able to smell it and taste the smoke, and the smoke becoming too overpowering.” I think they’ve struck the right balance. The seasoning on the barbecue potato chips is what you’d expect from a conventional one, minus that lingering liquid smoke tinge. I actually prefer the corn chips, which are similar to Fritos, and have a slightly sweet and savory seasoning blend. They make a great base for a Frito pie, or I guess a Low and Slow corn chip pie. The tortilla chips are the most subtle of the three and suffer if tasted next to the bolder potato and corn chips. They really sing with queso or salsa.
Drinkwater has a talent for developing the right seasoning blends, and he’s no snacking amateur. He first came to Dallas in 2003 to work in the marketing department of Frito-Lay. From there, he moved on to Pizza Hut, where he was the director of marketing when it launched a barbecue pizza collaboration with country music star Blake Shelton in 2014. He most recently worked for a sports apparel brand, and it was during his time away from the office in 2020 that he really developed the process and the flavors with his buddy Paul, who he considers a cofounder but is no longer involved with the company. The experiment that began with a tiny electric smoker in his backyard would need some special equipment to scale up.
Drinkwater found some investors and sought a factory in Texas that could help him produce and package the chips. Most were already at capacity, and the fact that he required floor space for a massive smoker didn’t help. Any partner also had to consider the hickory smoke generated by Low and Slow would affect other chips produced in the facility. Drinkwater said he finally found a partner in Florida that could accommodate his smoker and leave enough floor space for a second when production ramps up.
There’s a lot more that will be happening with Low and Slow soon, according to Drinkwater. He quit his job last year to focus on the brand. Bags of the smoked chips should be on grocery store shelves within the next few months. For now, they’re only available for purchase online, and luckily it doesn’t cost as much to ship a box of chips as it does to ship briskets. He’s also developing new flavors and products. “We’ve smoked every salty snack on the planet,” Drinkwater said of the research and development process. The next release will likely be smoked cheese puffs, and pretzels won’t be far behind.
When talking with Drinkwater, his passion for barbecue comes out, as well as his marketing prowess. To him, Low and Slow doesn’t produce chips but rather snacks that are barbecue replacements. “I wanted to build it like a barbecue brand that smokes chips instead of meat,” he said. And in a world where “barbecue” has become a buzzword used to market products like aluminum foil and dog food, I applaud him for creating a new category of barbecue products with something that’s actually smoked. A bag of the smoked chips may go well alongside a barbecue sandwich, but Drinkwater envisions it as something barbecue lovers would bring on camping, hunting, or fishing trips where smoking meat or eating barbecue might not be convenient. “If you didn’t bring your smoker with you,” he said, “at least you can have a sense of barbecue.”