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From drill bits to potato chips: ingenuity fights economic woes

It's an unlikely spot for a potato chip factory: a former Chevrolet dealership on a two-lane highway halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But Zapp's potato chips are taking the chip market in a 500-mile radius of New Orleans by storm. And in the process, the 21-month-old business, ``the little chippery in Gramercy,'' is providing one example of the kind of ingenuity that may help Louisiana pull itself out of its economic slump.

The business was started by Ron Zappe (he dropped the last letter when he named the company). Formerly the owner of an oil-field equipment company, Mr. Zappe, like so many others in the oil patch, saw his fortunes dry up with the swift fall of oil prices. After tasting some jalapeno-flavored chips in Houston, he decided to try his hand at hot-chip-making in Louisiana.

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``I went from crude oil to peanut oil,'' says Zappe, who decided to use Louisiana products, such as peanut oil, whenever possible. (Peanut oil, while more expensive than other oils, makes for a crisper chip, according to Zappe). In addition to regular and unsalted chips, the company began making Cajun Craw-tators, a hot variety that is the company's best seller.

After starting off with just nine employees, Zapp's now has 65, many of them long-term unemployed who had virtually given up on finding work in the region's two economic mainstays, oil and agriculture. Production is four times what the plant was planned to handle.

In the old dealership's garage, potatoes are washed, sliced, and fried. Then after being scraped into bins with regular garden-variety rakes, the chips are transported to the former showroom, where they are seasoned and packaged.

While the potatoes used for making the chips are from outside Louisiana, Zapp's recently introduced its ``Yam-tators,'' made from Louisiana sweet potatoes. ``The Department of Agriculture and the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission came to us about a year ago with the idea for the product,'' says Claire Charlton, Zapp's sales manager. ``We're all for a new product that will boost Louisiana at the same time.''

Veda Clark, Zapp's key-punch operator and occasional tour guide, says the new company has given an important boost to a town where unemployment runs close to 20 percent. ``Everybody wears Zapp's shirts and caps,'' she says.

And although making potato chips does not pay what oil-field work paid, Mrs. Clark adds that ``these days the pay isn't the greatest anywhere. We're just proud to be a part of this in little Gramercy.''

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