Last year, life handed McLean caterer Guy Smith lemons in the form of an empty potato chip bag. In terrible need of something crunchy to slide beside a chicken fajita sandwich, Smith grabbed a stack of flour tortillas, cut them into bite-sized pieces and threw them into the fryer at the McLean Racquet & Health Club.
He then piled them high on the plate, sprinkled them with chili powder, and sent them out the swinging door. Never even tasted them. Didn't think twice about it until one woman sent back a message with the waiter saying, "Man, these are great. Can I have some more?"
Now, Smith is president of his own food company, Heights Foods -- as in "We bring our customers to new heights" -- and sells about 100 bags of the chips a week. And from the reception he got in New York at the Fancy Food and Confection Show two weeks ago, his dream of starting a local food business is just about a done deal. "They caused a sensation. Everyone just kept crowding around our booth."
A year and a half ago, with several check marks still to be ticked off on his way to entrepreneurship, Smith began a catering company called New Heights out of McLean Racquet & Health Club. It is there that the hand-cut tortilla chips are still fried in a 15-gallon fryer in a corner of the kitchen. Smith then puts the crisped chips into special garbage can-like containers to be delivered for packaging.
He rolls one over to the table where he had been sitting and talking and opens it up. Inside in their angry red-pepper coating lie his Pepe Heights Delicious Salsa Chips.
They are flaky, hot and addictive.
"They are lighter to eat than corn chips," he says, "and they don't hurt your mouth." He even sent the chip to Nutrition International, a New Jersey food analyst, to find that the chip has no MSG, no preservatives, no cholesterol and that the fats are polyunsaturated. In fact, he says, there is less fat and less salt in his flour tortilla chip than in your average corn chip.
His secret? One is "Pepe" Smith's special seasoning, which no amount of coaxing will prod him to explain further. The first batch, he allows, was just chili powder. But when it came to down to refining the taste, he worked with Vann's Spice Company of Towson, Md., to come up with his current blend.
Now at the age of 25, Smith, who is blond, bespectacled and originally from Stafford, Va., has a culinary dream of a resume: graduate of the Culinary Institute of America; graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda; graduate of Cornell University (hotel and restaurant management); apprentice chef at the Four Seasons Hotel; chef at Giant Gourmet-Someplace Special in McLean for a year and a half, executive chef of both D.C. and Bethesda Sutton Place Gourmet for two years.
He uses the salary from his catering company to invest in the chips and credits both Tennessee Press of Knoxville, which produces the bags, and the Mrs. W.P. Iries potato chip company in Baltimore, which fills them with his chips, for letting him pay for their services after he's sold the product. On Fridays he drives to Baltimore to Mrs. W.P. Iries, climbs a ladder and pops his funky little tortillas through the funnel.
"They use humongous bags," says Smith, truly impressed with the stature of the operation in which he has suddenly found himself.
Smith also designed the bag with the help of a marketing company, choosing a bold blue and orange color and remembering to put a window in the bag to show off the chips flaky texture.
"You go to a grocery store and you go to the chip aisle and every chip is either a potato chip or a corn tortilla chip or popcorn. This is something which is absolutely unique, there is nothing like it out there and I wanted the color to reflect that."
The chip is currently sold in Northern Virginia Magruder's stores, the Alexandria Sutton Place, Bloomingdale's at Tysons Corner, Macy's, The Italian Gourmet in Vienna and Cecile's Wine Cellar in McLean. He has recently filled an order with Castle Food Products Corp., one of the biggest gourmet food distributors in the Washington-Baltimore area.
But don't think he's going to stop here. He has plans for marketing a salsa, a guacamole, in addition to pizza chips, bagel chips and pita chips. "Everywhere you go it's the same damn corn chip. I'm going to change all that."
Nina Killham is a Washington freelance writer.