Home-delivered fast food is a booming global business. But when it comes to French fries, there’s a hitch. They often get soggy on the ride. So top fry-makers are racing to perfect a crispy fry that can survive a 15-minute ride with a food delivery service.
My dog, Poa, starts barking when Uber Eats driver Crystal Begallia comes to my door with an order of fries. I ask her if she stresses over delivering cold and limp fries to her customers.
“I get kind of worried. Especially if I pick up food from like one of the bigger restaurants, and they are spending quite a bit of money," Begallia said. "Hopefully it’s still hot when I get to you."
One reason fries can lose their crunch is because they’re
often delivered in closed containers.
“Because you’re sealing them in like a sauna. And they just get soggy really quickly," said Deb Dihel, head of innovation for Lamb Weston. "So, it’s like the worst case scenario for a French fry.”
Lamb Weston is one of the largest potato processors in the U.S. It sells fries to large chain restaurants and food service companies around the world. Dihel oversees a team of food scientists who look for ways to improve fries.
She went to China five years ago to study the problem of fries that get soggy … and noticed restaurants were putting hot fries into large clamshell containers and then into closed boxes for delivery.
“I was like no, no, no don’t do that! At least leave it open, like at least let the steam vent and not make the product soggy," she said.
She knew that once out of the oil, most fries can stay crisp for 12 minutes max. So when she came home she set about trying to fix the problem.
One solution: Changing how fries are made.
These fries -- now cooking in bubbling hot oil in Lamb Weston’s test kitchen -- have been dipped in a special starchy batter. Its exact ingredients are a trade-secret -- but it’s got potato starch and rice flour to keep fries crisp.
And when we tried them 30 minutes later -- they were still crunchy, even at room temperature.
The other part of keeping fries crunchy on a ride: Packaging.
Lamb Weston developed a special container perforated with holes that lets steam escape without the fries getting cold. It’s a patented design that big restaurants can use, and brand for themselves.
Lamb Weston is just starting to sell the fries with the top secret batter and recently rolled out the new package design for its customers.
Adam Chandler is the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. He’s not surprised that big potato is working to slay the soggy.
“Fast food really doesn’t seem to be the kind of food you’d like to eat when it’s older than five minutes. But that’s how people are eating now, so the market is going to respond to that problem,” Chandler said.
At a popular fast food restaurant, I meet Blair Richardson for lunch. He’s the CEO of Potatoes USA, a trade group based in Denver.
Of course he orders fries. Richardson says because delivery is such a fast-growing segment, fry-makers and restaurants are trying to figure this out.
“We are reimagining how we can bring potatoes to consumers today, and we never stop doing that. If an industry stops doing that then they’re going to become irrelevant quickly,” Richardson said.
Rivers of freshly-cut fries flow over conveyor belts inside Lamb Weston’s massive factory. In the company’s futures file? Developing a prototype french fry for a self-driving car with a robot and an onboard air-fryer.