Whoever thought a bag of potato chips could nearly derail a film production?
It was late on a June night back in 2009, in the kind of wet, suffocating summer heat like you might see in “Swamp Thing”. I was out prowling the streets of Birmingham with my friends Vince and Jason, trying to find the perfect sleazy motel to film a quick pick-up scene for the latest episode of “Creepfest”, our horror hosting show that never went anywhere, but kept us busy with a lot of crazy ideas anyway.
Each episode of the show would begin with a parody of a classic scary movie where we would play the characters. I had played Barbara, Vince was her annoying brother, Johnny, and Jason was a zombie in the graveyard scene from “Night of the Living Dead”, for example. Tonight, the cheap motel we were searching for would be a set straight out of “The Blair Witch Project”, where we would re-enact the scene of the eager young filmmakers chilling out just before heading into the woods, never to be seen again. I was excited about playing the lady director, Heather, because it meant I got to shoot down half a bottle of scotch on camera. Authenticity was our goal.
So it came as a disappointment, then, when a search of every grocery store in the area turned up no hits on Utz, the potato chip from the North that figures as a crucial prop in the scene we wanted to re-create. The character Jason was set to play, the baby-faced cynic Mikey, gleefully displays the bag for the camera in the film while wolfing them down and proudly proclaiming, “I got a bag uv Utz an’ a beer!”
Many years later, I remember that night being filled with debate:
Me: “We’ll just get some Golden Flakes and cover up the bag.”
Vince (always the hard nose for detail): “But in the film, he shows the bag to the camera. It’s UTZ, baby!”
Me: “Nobody’s gonna notice!”
Vince: “I will notice!”
Only Jason’s resolve kept the train on course. Driving the car, he pulled us into the parking lot of the pay-by-the-hour Star Motel in Irondale, where the hookers and johns in the courtyard watched three twenty-something men walk into a room with a bunch of cameras arguing about potato chips.
In the end, pressed for time, Jason just turned the bag Nutritional Facts-side to the camera, and we took more pride in the fact that we had managed to score an actual 16-mm film camera from my roommate – the exact kind they use in the film – as a prop.
So I couldn’t help but kick myself this week and recall that mad summer night many summers ago when I read that Utz Quality Foods, the Pennsylvania-based junk food behemoth, will permanently be marking its territory down here in the South when it acquires Golden Flake later this year. I said: “If only we had waited seven years”.
Of course, it hasn’t ever been impossible to find the Utz brand in Alabama. It’s just existed in a kind of Farmers’ Market rarity: you’re only really able to find the brand at certain stores -- and sometimes at specific times -- where lesser known brands are stocked. Here in Dixie, the market has always belonged to Golden Flake, and especially in Birmingham, where their sprawling factory complex on the southwest side of the city has been a staple of field trip experiences for kids going back at least thirty years. I can remember one Spring day in the third grade, where we forgot about "The Indian in the Cupboard" and learning how to write in cursive for one day, and our vices were egged-on as we walked along the conveyor belt at the Golden Enterprises plant. There, we were allowed to take unlimited samples of our favorite products right off the line – regular potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, cheese curls, cheddar popcorn – and scarf them down like the kids in the Wonka factory without consequence.
From what I can tell, the Golden Flake brand isn’t going anywhere. Utz will be keeping the label, and it will still be the “South’s original potato chip”. It will just be backed by Northern monies and essentially the same as any other stalwart brand that’s considered a quintessential part of its region’s identity, like Budweiser (or “America”) beer being stuffed down Brazilian pockets. The field trip tradition will continue also. Heck, it’ll probably be stronger than ever, because Utz’s primary interest in Golden Flake is their factories in Florida, thanks to loyal northeastern septuagenarians moving down for retirement and desperately needing a Potato Stix fix.
It’s all well and good, even though a mention of Utz will always make me cringe a little. Soon, when the brand fills the supermarket shelves and you can hear the crispy crunch of virgin southerners sinking their teeth in for the first time, I know I’m going to have to resist the temptation to pick up the phone and call Vince in Los Angeles, offering him full air fare to come back to Birmingham so we can finally get it right.