Chip wars: summer battle for our hearts and palates

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On the steaming asphalt streets of major American cities this summer a battle is being fought for the hearts and minds and mouths of the American people: the Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwich War. Millions of dollars are at stake.

It is a pitched battle, urban guerrilla warfare, fought from rival MVUs (mobile vending units) that square off at downtown street corners and send up warning rounds of dry-ice smoke. For the customer who crunches into one of these cool, sweet treats - two chocolate chip cookies bookending a few ounces of ice cream - the skirmishes are just a summer giggle, a fun switch from Popsicles or frozen yogurts.

But chocolate chips are turning into a blue-chip business for the innovator of the cookie sandwich, the Chipwich Company, which sold over 10 million Chipwiches in its first nine months of business, at nearly $1 each. Imitation, as Charles Caleb Colton said, is the sincerest of flattery. Chipwich is suddenly slathered in flattery with variations on its theme: Good Humor's Cookie Sandwich , Swenson's Gookie, Dolly Madison's Chips'n'chips, and local favorites such as Washington's Chips a la Mode.

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Chipwich president Sam Metzger says the company has infiltrated 30 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, and Miami. Business has boomed several hundred percent from its beginnings last summer, from 90 carts last year to 600 this summer. There are also frozen Chipwiches available at 3,000 New England area supermarkets, 4,000 more nationwide. ''We're in 11 store chains in 48 states,'' says Mr. Metzger proudly. And that's not all: ''We're anticipating a public offering'' of stock, he says, and cautions that he can't comment any further on that.

Metzger said that by the time you read this, Bloomingdale's, one of the hottest department-store chains, will have launched a Chipwich promotion in its stores, with other tie-ins to follow. Chipwich is already manufacturing Chipwich T-shirts (about $6 each) and buttons for cookie cognoscenti. Asked whether Chipwich jeans are on the horizon, Mr. Metzger starts to laugh, then says, ''Hmmm . . . '' thoughtfully.

We are talking here about food chic, and the profits to be made from promoting it. Coming on the heels of designer chocolates, Famous Amos's cookie success, and croissant sandwiches, this latest fad is a natural.

It began last summer when Richard LaMotta, a former CBS video engineer and lawyer, invented the Chipwich in the basement of his father's home in Brooklyn. LaMotta, a chocolate-chip-cookies-and-milk freak, decided that that unique taste had never been purveyed as an ice cream. He spent eight months testing until he came up with the formula for Chipwich, then two years looking for a way to market it. He decided on ''class'' vending. Beginning with half a million dollars ''raised from hocking my house and children'' and a bank loan, he has built Chipwich into a chocolate-chip empire grossing, he now estimates, between a promotional tour, the chairman of the board of the Chipwich Company said he was ''cutting deals with Australia, West Germany, Hong Kong,'' and called his enterprise ''one of those unbelievable Horatio Alger stories.''

In downtown Washington, a blond woman standing midway between the Chips a la Mode and Chipwich carts grumbles to her companion, ''The cookies on them always taste stale.'' Then she bought one.

Under the orange umbrella stands the Chipwich cart, one of 31 that ply the downtown tourist areas and the zoo. When a regular customer like the guy in horn-rimmed glasses and white T-shirt shows up, vendor Carla Thorson just hands him his favorite flavor (vanilla) and collects the $1 without a word. Another regular, a woman, appears every night at 6 to buy ''one chocolate, one vanilla, very cold, in a bag.''

Carla, a University of Wisconsin student, wears the company's regulation orange gabardine pith helmet, white T-shirt with a Chipwich logo, and matching button on the hip of her khaki shorts.

In the intensely competitive world of street vending, Chipwich hires people to show up each morning at 4 o'clock to claim the choice sidewalk locations. ''The jewelry people and the flower and plant people are here every morning at 4 . . . to hold their spots,'' Carla says. ''All the spots are gone by 6 a.m.''

At the Chips a la Mode stand, the logo breathlessly proclaims ''The Gourmet Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich!'' Buyers were lined up under the umbrella trying to decide between mint chocolate chip, butter pecan, coffee chip , and double chocolate chip. Coffee chip is the big seller, says vendor Michael Hochstein, a woman, who says she averages 175 to 180 sales on a hot day. She wears an orange chef's hat and a yellow and orange apron with the company logo on it.

Chips a la Mode is a Washington cottage industry, owned by Darrell Green, a 26-year-old ice cream entrepreneur. Green was a student at the University of Maryland when he decided to start Chips a la Mode as his MBA project in business and marketing.

Green, who now has nine carts a day in the Washington area (compared with Chipwich's 31), refuses to discuss company figures, which he says are disappointing.

''It's not as profitable or as much of a boon as everyone thinks. The market is saturated right now with chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. I started on a shoestring and the vending part of the job has been more difficult than I expected, with complicated laws and regulations.'' But he is still at work retooling his product, improving it. He is redesigning the packaging, and reworking his recipe for the crucial cookie: ''I want to make it crunchier.''

This question of cookie resilience is an important one in a product that can suffer from melt-down. In our Chipwich interview, Mr. Metzger was concerned about the cookie ballistics. ''Was it crumbly or soft?'' he asked anxiously. ''It's supposed to be crisp.''

At our casual and unscientific staff taste test of four products, there were several favorites. But the informal winner was Chips a la Mode's chocolate chip cookie filled with mint chip ice cream. It tastes homemade, with a chewy cookie resembling ones made from the famous tollhouse recipe. One reporter voted for Swenson's ''Gookie,'' which has a semi-gooey wraparound of chocolate on its top cookie, and is filled with the company's superlative ice cream. Those who favored Chipwich praised the crisper cookie. With its bland, soggy cookie, the Good Humor came trailing in last, far from the glories of its perennial favorite , the toasted almond bar.

It should be noted that there is some customer resistance to the priciness of chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. As one customer put it, ''What? A buck for this?'' before he bought it. But even at a dollar apiece, customers are lapping them up, and the sweet crunch of success goes on.

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