FARMINGTON – Cooked to the 1930s' made-in-Flossie-Howard's-cast-iron-kettle recipe, the original Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips are be a cult item.
Yet the company, owned by the Richard Blackhurst family since 1973, isn't resting on its reputation.
Even while exploring new markets and new products, Kitchen Cooked insists on trucking its own wares to stores from the Quad Cities to St. Louis and flying special shipments to devoted customers from central Illinois to Afghanistan.
"We're still small. We're fighting the big brands," vice president Paul Blackhurst said. "We're continuing to expand: More items, more flavors of items. ... We want our niche with our own items."
A jalapeno-flavored cheese curl debuted a few weeks ago; caramel corn may be on the way. Man does not live by potato chips alone. But a few satisfied Kitchen Cooked customers might try:
• A Morton native, 62-year-old Jane Chittick moved to Memphis, Tenn., when her husband was transferred for work. The owner of her own embroidery firm, she orders six to eight 10-ounce bags at a time – to support another small business and her own back-home tastes.
"There's such a variety of chips here," she said. "There's just nothing that quite compares to Kitchen Cooked. They taste more like potato."
• Wayne Bradley is originally from Blue Grass, Iowa. Like Chittick, he'd rather ship chips than eat anything available near his retirement quarters. He orders eight packages a month, which he shares with a fellow transplant from the Quad Cities.
"We moved to Florida," the 66-year-old said. "They do not have any decent chips."
• Seventy-one-year-old Patty Parks of Columbus, Ohio, acquired her addiction courtesy of her ex-husband's Army buddy, "Sweet Billy" Rafferty of Farmington. She says Rafferty and his wife, Phyllis, kept in touch over the years. On one visit, they toted their hometown chips for Parks to sample.
"I've been hooked ever since," said Parks, who now orders eight 10-ounce bags a couple times a month. "I always say I never met a potato I didn't like. They're awesome."
Maintaining such far-flung devotion is a relatively new part of the Kitchen Cooked business.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, thanks to the Internet and chips sent to military bases overseas, the company's reach has become global.
There is a rumor, which FedEx will neither confirm nor deny, that Kitchen Cooked chips are one of its top items at the Peoria airport. Blackhurst can only say for sure that his company ships 50 to 100 cases of chips a week during the peak holiday season.
"Christmas is huge, with people shipping chips as gifts," Blackhurst said.
Most of the time, Kitchen Cooked uses in its own familiar white-and-red trucks to make sure the product on the shelf is fresh.
Over the last few years, its range gradually expanded to roughly a three-hour radius of the plants in Farmington and Bushnell.
"We want to be ready when we take on a new market," Blackhurst said. "There's only so far you can ship, because we want our product to be fresh."
At certain times of the year, you can't get much fresher. In summer, when the Illinois crop comes in, fresh-dug potatoes can be at the Farmington plant first thing in the morning.
"They'll be cooked the same day and on the shelf the day after that," Blackhurst says. "It really spoils us when we can get them right here."