Maui: home of surfers, suntans - and potato chips?

When it comes to chips 'n dips, this little island has plenty to boast about. First the chips: Behind the counter at a low-slung, cracker-box building in Kahului's modern industrial park, Joe Kobayashi is frantically filling orders for ``The Original, Maui Kitch'n Cook'd Potato Chips,'' a product that has become one of Maui's most popular products.

People pour in from the street nonstop. Some back their cars right up to the front glass doors, with trunks and hatchbacks open wider than a hippopotamus's jaws.

They can pick up a bag or two at the local grocery store, but these folks are heavy-duty potato chip eaters who are doing their holiday shopping.

``Two cartons please, Joe. I have to get these on the next plane to the mainland,'' says a heavyset man who recently moved here from California, adding, ``I send them to my family every year.''

``It's the busiest time of the year,'' says Joe, passing over another carton to a woman who was sending some to her family in San Francisco.

``Oh, sure,'' she says, ``you can get Maui chips at Macy's in San Franciso, but they cost $4.50 for a twin-pack. Other stores on the mainland carry a limited supply at sky-high prices.'' In Maui, a twin pack costs as little as $1.89.

``Oh, Joe, give me a couple of T-shirts too,'' she adds, choosing blue ones with the Maui Kitch'n Cook'd logo stamped on the front.

Joe Kobayashi and a few relations took over the chip company back in 1956 or '57, Joe can't remember quite when. Together they changed the recipe, cut the potatoes a little thicker, and hired new help. There are about 22 workers in the operation today, including a number of family members. The business is kept small and personal and the quality high.

The clear cellophane packages with red and yellow print reveal the ingredients: potatoes, cottonseed oil, salt.

What makes them so different, so sought after?

``I think because we do everything by personal control, not by machine,'' Joe says as we move between the mountain of cartons to the production area. ``Other companies like Frito Lay and Granny Goose make chips, but they have computers where you put a potato in one end and it comes out chips at the other.''

The Maui factory is one large room where women work at their various posts. Karen stands on a platform over a huge, square, stainless steel open vat filled with cottonseed oil. She stirs masses of raw, washed potato slices with a pair of humongous chopsticks.

``The cookers have the most sensitive job and work the longest hours. They also get the most money,'' Joe explains, opening a bag of chips for me to munch on. ``It takes about three to four months to become a cooker,'' he adds.

``You cook them until the color is right,'' was Karen's simple explanation, not lifting her eyes from the bubbling cauldron. ``About fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.''

After that, they are pulled out of the vat with a large strainer and dumped into a centrifugal dryer. Then, while the next batch of potatoes is frying, the excess oil is spun off. The chips are dumped onto plain brown paper and checked for doneness. Those needing more cooking time are tossed back in the oil, and the overcooked chips are dumped in a cardboard box.

``Nothing is wasted,'' says Joe, explaining that the overcooked chips are sent to the local piggery. ``The pigs love them, too,'' he says with a grin.

Next, the fryers grab a blue container of Morton's salt and sprinkle the chips manually - ``Until they're just right,'' another fryer explains, handing me a chip the size of a saucer. They are then poured into a packaging machine - one of the few steps not done by hand.

So what's the secret? What goes into these chips?

``Lot's of TLC and lots of personality,'' said a woman wearing a purple cattleya orchid rather rakishly behind her ear.

Joe walked me back to the storage room where a new batch of potates had just arrived. Picking up one of the football-sized spuds, he explained that these were giant russet potatoes ``from northern California and Washington.'' They are the preferred varitey here. With pencil and paper, Joe quickly figures out that 1,000 100-pound sacks of these behemoths arrive here each month.

Then he gets a plea of desperation from his nephew to come to the front to help a growing line of anxious customers.

``Must go now,'' Joe explains.

``What about dips?'' I ask as we race to the front of the factory. ``What do you like?''

``Some kids today like to put catsup on them, but I don't like it. I like that green dip they make in Mexico. Yes, that's right, guacamole.''

Catsup? Never! But guacamole - si! Still, the best chip 'n dip combination on this brilliant, sun-drenched isle is a bag of Maui's Kitch'n Cook'd and a dip in the Pacific at Kaanapali Beach.

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