Images by Michael Piazza
It all started about five years ago with a lunch special. Sal Graceffa had taken over deli operations at Bolton Orchards, where he found himself one day with some excess oil from cooking chicken confit. “What the heck, I’m gonna make potato chips with this oil,” he thought, and Sal’s Gourmet Potato Chips was born. Now available at many area grocery stores, specialty stores, and farmers markets, Sal’s chips continue to grow in popularity as more and more Bostonians discover the thick-cut, flavor-blasted allure of these addictive snacks.
Graceffa, originally from Allston-Brighton, graduated from Johnson & Wales in Providence before going on to work at the Harvard Club, The Country Club in Chestnut Hill, and a corporate restaurant chain in Illinois. It was this latter gig that changed Graceffa’s trajectory. “[I] realized I wasn’t cut out for the corporate world,” he says, “[I] really enjoyed working with food, working with what was in season.” He left the corporate job, and while working on restaurant consulting with a former professor, he landed a job at Bolton Orchards. It was there, in revamping their deli menu, that he began experimenting with lunch specials and, serendipitously, that one potato chip addition. Before he knew it, Graceffa was going through a case of potatoes every week.
The chips gained a cult following. “People were ordering the special[s] just to get the potato chips,” he remembers, adding that he soon began selling them in their own containers. “They flew off the showcases,” he says.
Graceffa eventually took an opportunity to move into a small restaurant space in Bolton and open up his own Italian restaurant. He put chips on the menu there as an appetizer, and their popularity continued to snowball. After gaining approval from the state to wholesale in late 2011, Graceffa began wholesaling in 2012. “When I realized how much I was making from chips,” he says, “I closed the restaurant and put potato chips full force.”
Sal’s Gourmet Potato Chips come in four signature flavors—salted, barbeque, rosemary truffle, and cheese & herb, which Graceffa describes as being “almost like Sunday dinner in a bite.” All of the flavors are hand-mixed, using natural flavorings and no preservatives or chemicals. As a result, you may notice that Sal’s Chips have a shorter shelf life than commercial potato chips. But this is largely irrelevant—the chips will likely be gone hours after their purchase. Though Graceffa doesn’t have teams of flavor scientists and “bliss point” experts working to craft addictive flavors, his DIY approach to chip flavoring had me shoveling handfuls of the chips into my mouth with unabashed fervor on a recent afternoon.
The barbeque chips are seasoned with smoked paprika, cumin, hickory, and kosher salt, among other flavorings. Graceffa notes that commercial barbeque chips are often much sweeter than his, which opt for the deeper, more complex sweetness of natural brown sugar. The difference is noticeable. The cheese & herb flavor uses real Romano cheese, along with garlic and parsley, to achieve the aforementioned “Sunday dinner” effect. Rosemary truffle uses fresh rosemary rather than dried, which Graceffa says infuses the salt with rosemary flavor via natural oils. Little things like this set Sal’s Chips apart.
All the chips start with Russet potatoes, cut thick and fried in canola oil—a choice Graceffa made because of its comparatively high frying temperature and relative safety with regard to food allergies. The chips’ thickness makes them ideal for dipping (these things will not break), but equally ideal for serious snacking on their own. Another noticeable difference about this product is its distinct packaging—Sal’s Chips come not in a bag, but in a plastic box. This leads to somewhat daintier snacking, and also turns our conception of normative potato chip packaging on its head. Graceffa explains that a bagging machine is far more costly than the boxes, and that being able to see the chips through the clear plastic boxes can only differentiate him more and attract more customers. “People eat with their eyes, and potato chips are very visually appealing,” he rightfully states. Clearly, standing out has been a winning strategy.
Last year, Graceffa was the only one running the business—“I did it all,” he says. “I sliced, fried, packaged, and sold.” As his business continues to grow, he has taken on some pro-bono help, mostly from family, but still does pretty much everything himself. He now operates out of a commercial kitchen space in Bolton, and is going through 800-1,200 pounds of potatoes each week. Let us herald in the age of “All that and a box of chips.”
Sal’s Gourmet Potato Chips are available at American Provisions in South Boston, Dewar’s in Wellesley, Marty’s in Newton, UDG in Boston, and Shaw’s in Auburndale, Porter Square, and the Prudential Center. At the time of writing, Graceffa is still figuring out which farmers markets he will be at this summer.
Sal’s Gourmet Potato Chips salsgourmetfoods.com
LUKE PYENSON is a food and travel writer, recipe developer, food stylist and photographer based in New York City. You can see examples of his work at www.lukepyenson.com.