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The Ukraine war means a potato chip company has to rethink its formula


War changes things, big things and little things, affecting life in ways you might never expect, even half a world away. That's been the case for Sarah Cohen. Cohen is the founder and CEO of Route 11 Potato Chips, a small company that makes hand-cooked kettle-style chips in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. When Cohen first heard about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, like much of the world, she thought it was awful but had little to do with her. She was wrong because not long after the invasion, she realized she wouldn't be getting her regular shipment of sunflower seed oil. That's because something like 80% of the world's sunflower seeds are grown in Ukraine and Russia, but Russia's ongoing assault on Ukraine and blockade of the shipping lanes through the Black Sea has made the final product, sunflower seed oil, very hard to come by. And we're not telling a trade secret here. Sunflower oil was a crucial part of her chipmaking process.

We wanted to hear more about how this admittedly very specific part of the global supply chain has been affected by the war, so we called Sarah Cohen. And she's with us now. Sarah Cohen, welcome. Thanks for talking with us.

SARAH COHEN: Thank you, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Why sunflower seed oil? I think a lot of people would think, you know, maybe peanut oil. But how did you start using sunflower seed oil?

COHEN: We liked sunflower oil because it was nice and light, and it let the flavor of the potato come through with every crunch. So we've been using just sunflower oil really for the last 12 years.

MARTIN: So small businesses have already gone through a lot, you know, because of COVID, because of stay-at-home orders. So walk me through how and when you found out that Route 11 wouldn't be getting its normal sunflower oil.

COHEN: Well, the first strange thing that happened was I had a - there was a smaller potato chip producer that called and said that he could not get his sunflower oil and if we could make his product for him. And I was like, no, that's not something we can do. But when I hung up the phone, I was like, phew, I'm glad that's not us. And then a week later, we got the call from our supplier saying that we weren't going to be getting our next order and it was uncertain when we would be able to get sunflower oil. The timing was difficult because we were just ramping up for our busy chip season. You know, everything - the chip frenzy starts in April, and people really start eating chips, then the demand goes up. So just as that was happening, we were trying to figure out, what are we going to do if we run out of oil?

MARTIN: Why does the chip season start in April?

COHEN: That is a good question. So I think it's because everybody's New Year's resolutions that they're not going to eat potato chips start to fade away by March (laughter).

MARTIN: That's funny. I was going to go with field trips, like at the end of the school year field trips. But I don't know. Like, that's just - that's so interesting. You have all these details. Well, first, before you started to scramble, what went through your mind? Like, what - I just wonder, like, what was that like? Like, you're sitting - like, what are you doing? You're sitting in your office doing, like, what you normally would be doing, and then the phone rings, and it's like, hey, you know?

COHEN: Well, I have to say, I panicked. I panicked. It was interesting because we'd gotten through the pandemic without any supply chain issues - I mean, a couple little hiccups, but nothing showstopping. And this would be showstopping. And I was trying to figure out, OK, what can we do? You know, we only list the sunflower oil on our label. So we didn't have any flexibility there. You know, it wasn't just 80% of sunflower oil - you know, the world's sunflower oil supply, but it impacted, like, all vegetable oils, you know, because the sudden shortage, I think because I guess sunflower oil is a very popular oil in Europe. And, you know, when they couldn't get that oil, it just - you know, nor could the the U.S. get, you know, what it was used to importing - there was just a shutdown. People were jumping to other oils, and it was very hard. And nobody wanted to sell anything because - it was almost like the whole market froze up.

MARTIN: You know, as a consequence for some parts of the world, you know, the World Food Program, a number of the other global NGOs are very worried that people are literally going to starve because so much of the grain supply has been either destroyed or it's impossible to get where it needs to get. So I was going to ask you that, if this has kind of changed the way you think about your place in the world. Sounds like it has.

COHEN: Yeah, it has. I think we definitely feel connected, and I - it's made me much more hyperly aware. And, you know, you get aware of the food industry. You know, you learn a lot about food while you're - when you're in this business. But this was definitely an eye-opener in a lot of ways, I have to say.

MARTIN: So where are we now? Where are things now?

COHEN: We spent a couple dizzying months using peanut oil. And because we didn't have a flex label on our bag, which would allow us to use whatever oil we wanted, we actually had to put little stickers on every single bag of chips that we were producing. And it was crazy. And so everybody...

MARTIN: Can I just tell you, Sarah, that that's how we found you.

COHEN: I know (laughter).

MARTIN: That's how we found you, is we saw one of the stickers on the bag because you're a sort of semi-local business. And a lot of the stores around our office sell the chips. And it's - the sticker says, due to the conflict in Ukraine, there's a critical shortage in the global supply of sunflower oil. For now, we have only intermittent access to sunflower oil at any price. In order to keep making you delicious, all-natural chips, we have begun blending in a high quality, non-GMO, refined peanut oil with sunflower oil. And you say that - I'm editing a teeny bit here, but it says that we will return to cooking in only sunflower oil as soon as we can. We hope for peace in Ukraine. So, yeah, what was that - so did you guys line everybody up and just stick those stickers on the bags?

COHEN: Oh, my God. Yeah, it was terrible because we had to cut our production speed in half. We normally can run about 80 bags a minute. And there's just no way. You know, we were like an OSHA claim waiting to happen because everybody was getting dizzy, and it was - yeah, it just - it wasn't great. So we were all looking forward to getting our first load of sunflower back in. And that happened June 15.


COHEN: Yeah. But it's still - but we've only got, like, another load and a half committed to us. And now we've got to start working on figuring out what we're going to do next. But our goal is to stick with the sunflower.

MARTIN: Well, good luck. I mean, it sounds like no beach vacation for Sarah Cohen this year.

COHEN: No, not this summer.

MARTIN: Not this summer. So that's Sarah Cohen. She's the CEO of Route 11 Chips. Sarah Cohen, thank you so much for talking with us. Good luck.

COHEN: Thanks, Michel.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.