Born During the Great Depression, Fritos Is Once Again Homebound Americans’ Snack of Choice

The familiar corn chip is providing a 'sense of reassurance and comfort' during the pandemic

bags of Fritos
Fritos' sales are up considerably during the pandemic. Getty Images

Like every year, 2018 racked up its share of lugubrious news. The federal government shut down (twice), the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian officials for conspiring to hack the election and adult film star Stormy Daniels revealed her intimate relationship with President Trump. But one development from 2018 shocked and saddened millions of Americans like little else could. Early in the year, PepsiCo decided to discontinue barbecue flavor Fritos.

OK, wait—were people really that upset? Actually, yes.

“Truly an outrage and an injustice,” charged one blogger. “Outrageous,” tweeted a fan. “Oh no,” posted another. “I’ve been fighting this all year!” And indeed, many were. A petition surfaced to bring back BBQ Fritos, and nearly 23,000 people signed it.

Not unaware of the power of enforced scarcity, headquarters has now brought the BBQ chips back (for a while, anyway), though Fritos marketing vp Sadira Furlow said that the timing had nothing to do with the pandemic. “Candidly, it was already in the plan,” she said. “It’s the No. 1 requested flavor. Consumers have called in and said, ‘Bring it back.’”

Nonetheless, the pandemic has left its mark on the all-American corn chip. Sales are up considerably, which seems to be a function of both stay-at-home lounging behavior and also what Furlow terms “a certain sense of reassurance and comfort” associated with familiar munchies.

And Fritos is, if nothing else, familiar. The simple chips have been around since 1932, when San Antonio entrepreneur Charles Elmer Doolin went in search of chips to serve at his store counter and happened upon the fritas, Spanish for “little fried things,” made by a Mexican-born cook named Gustavo Olguin. Borrowing $100 from his mother, Doolin bought Olguin’s recipe (salted masa fried in corn oil) and began producing the chips in his home kitchen. The Great Depression was in full swing, and the 10 pounds of chips Doolin made daily netted the family a handsome profit of $10 a day—$200 in today’s currency.

The corn chips’ popularity spread quickly and, by 1945, the Fritos Company inked a deal with Lay’s potato chips to cross-distribute the snacks across the Eastern U.S. The deal worked so well that the brands merged in 1961, creating the Frito-Lay name we know today. Fritos became a billion-dollar brand in 1979 and is a cornerstone today of the $16 billion PepsiCo food and beverage empire.

Meanwhile, Americans sheltering at home haven’t just been snacking on Fritos, but apparently cooking with them, too. Post-war suburban housewives were encouraged to add Fritos to salads and burgers as early as the 1950s, a tradition that’s found new footing as people rediscover delicacies like Frito pie, Frito nachos and Frito chicken casserole. “It’s been interesting,” Furlow said, “to see what consumers have done with Fritos.”

That corny sidekick

Legacy brands often come with mascots just as old, but things didn’t quite work out that way for Fritos. In 1952, Doolin developed a cowboy character called the Frito Kid, complete with boots, a 10-gallon hat and a shock of yellow hair. The lad was a perfect fit amid the post-war mania for Westerns, and he even greeted guests at Casa de Fritos restaurant, which the company opened in Disneyland. But Fritos dropped the kid in 1967, replacing him with the Frito Bandito, a gun-toting Mexican highwayman with a leery smile. The stereotype offended many, and the bandito disappeared in 1971. Ever since then, Fritos has gone it alone.
Courtesy of Frito-Lay
Crunch Time After moving operations out of his home kitchen, C.E. Doolin set up his company in this Main Street building (1) in Dallas (note the corn storage tanks in the background). By 1948, trucks were delivering Fritos nationally (2), thanks to demand created by the company’s extensive advertising (3). The company encouraged suburban housewives to add Fritos to everything, including salads, burgers and even beverages (4).
Courtesy of Frito-Lay
This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.