Episode 946: Fries Of The Future : Planet Money Fast food delivery is threatening the french fry. So a band of potato scientists go to work. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 946: Fries Of The Future

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Episode 946: Fries Of The Future

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

When Deb Dihel went to China on business about five years ago, she noticed something she hadn't seen before.

DEB DIHEL: You saw so many scooters with boxes zipping in and out of traffic, zipping in and out of apartments or into offices. And it was just so, so pervasive I just had to - I just couldn't ignore it.

GONZALEZ: She was like, where are all these scooters coming from? What's in all these boxes? Is this, like, a delivery thing? So she follows one of these scooters to see where it stops.

DIHEL: And there was a whole line of scooters.

GONZALEZ: All these scooters are parked outside of a McDonald's in Shanghai. And Deb is like, is this a thing in China? So she keeps following more scooters, and she keeps seeing these scooter lines outside of U.S. fast-food chains in China.

DIHEL: McDonald's, Burger King, Yum! - KFC - each one of those restaurants would have maybe 40 or 50 scooters lined up.

GONZALEZ: Of McDonald's and Burger King?

DIHEL: Yes, yes. It was very common. Actually, there was - the restaurant could be empty, but the scooters could be going 10 a minute. I mean, they just were going out of the restaurant much faster than people coming into the restaurant.

GONZALEZ: Deb, by the way, is a food scientist at a frozen potato company in the U.S. called Lamb Weston. Deb used to work in flavors, then coatings and now potatoes. She's the vice president of innovation at this potato company.

DIHEL: And I was like, is there - is there food in there?

GONZALEZ: Like, is there french-fried food in all these boxes on the scooters - right? - because she's in the potato business. So she peers into these fast-food chains to watch what kind of food is going out the door.

DIHEL: And they were just frying fries and dumping them out and putting them in bags, and they would - out the door they would go.

GONZALEZ: Onto the scooters and into the delivery boxes.

DIHEL: And they were just loading it all up in there, and including the fries. And then they were sealing it and zipping it shut. And so this immediately got me nervous because I know how french fries are, and I know a lot about how long they last.

GONZALEZ: Anyone who has ever ordered fries knows how fries are. They're good right out of the oil when they're all hot and soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. But within minutes, they stop resembling the thing that makes them a french fry. They get cold and limp, and they suck. And Deb, food scientist, says a regular fry really only stays good for five to seven minutes.

DIHEL: So my fear was if people received cold or soggy or limp fries after they ordered them through a delivery service, they wouldn't order french fries again.

GONZALEZ: Meaning people would be like, give me two hamburgers, skip the fries.

DIHEL: That's right. That's something that I don't want to happen, Lamb Weston doesn't want to happen.

GONZALEZ: Deb starts envisioning a China without french fries. And she thinks, what if this trend spreads to America? What if Americans start wanting fast food delivered to them? The fries are going to be terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "LET'S START A MOVEMENT")

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Fast-food delivery is threatening the french fry. It's changing how and where and when we eat. And as delivery changes, the food will have to change, too.

Today on the show, Deb Dihel sets out to build the french fry of the future. Fries aren't just a side order; they're state-of-the-art 21st century technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "LET'S START A MOVEMENT")

ADAM CHANDLER: The french fry is - you know, it is that elusive crispy unicorn. It's impossible to get a great french fry after a certain amount of time. It just - it not only becomes not good, it just becomes terrible. It's not just, like, the absence of good; it becomes something awful.

GONZALEZ: Are you wearing a shirt with hamburgers all over it?

CHANDLER: This is my lucky shirt. I have to wear this.

GONZALEZ: This is Adam Chandler, a fast-food expert with very strong opinions about french fries.

CHANDLER: I'm the author of "Drive-Thru Dreams."

GONZALEZ: And how do you eat your french fries? What do you dip them in?

CHANDLER: I used to be a ketchup purist, and now I've defected a little bit closer to mayo. I'm an embarrassment to my country, but I'm not looking back.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) I dip my french fries in my milkshake. That's my thing.

CHANDLER: Oh, OK. Yeah, that - I think that is, like, a level of, like, perfect gluttony that more people should be embracing.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

And more and more, Adam says people are embracing fast-food delivery. We want our food to come to us when we're in our PJs, watching Netflix. And he says it's an unlikely trend for french fries because fries were meant to be consumed quickly. And yet here we are, accepting lackluster, cold delivery fries - for now.

CHANDLER: At some point, someone's going to come out with a better french fry - and I know that fast-food companies are working on that - that last longer, that's crisp longer, and whoever gets there first is going to be a really happy company with really happy shareholders.

GONZALEZ: They're going to be, like, super frickin' (ph) rich?

CHANDLER: Yes, I think so. They've got some skin in the game - some potato skins in the game, if you will. I'm sorry. That was terrible.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) I mean, you're wearing a hamburger shirt.

CHANDLER: It's bad. it's embarrassing all around.

GONZALEZ: OK, the first official order of fries in the U.S. was placed at the White House by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, according to the people who should know that - culinary historians. Thomas Jefferson used to be the foreign minister to France, and a year into his presidency, he had a craving for a staple French snack.

CHANDLER: He asked his chef for potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings, served in the French manner.

GONZALEZ: Potatoes deep-fried while raw?

CHANDLER: Yes. Amazing, right?

GONZALEZ: Soon we had a new name for potatoes deep-fried while raw, in the French manner - French-fried potatoes. Then by the 1930s, just french fries. And although the U.S. is not the most potato-consuming nation, it is a huge french fry-consuming nation. So Adam says delivery is a threat to anyone who sells fries.

CHANDLER: There's definitely a panic in that they want to adopt their businesses to this whole delivery model.

GONZALEZ: And Adam says fast-food chains have survived threats before. Back in the '40s and '50s, Americans started eating in their cars, at drive-ins. Waitresses would come out to the parking lot, to your car window, with trays and roller skates and take your order.

CHANDLER: And you'd get your utensils and your cups and your napkins, and a lot of times, those disappeared.

GONZALEZ: People would, like, take the utensils and trays home - and the cups?

CHANDLER: Yeah, they would drive off with them. It was a huge cost for these small businesses. It also slowed everything down to have a dedicated space in the kitchen to deal with dirty plates coming in - cleaning them, drying them.

GONZALEZ: It was costing money, and so the wrapper was born.

Like, a wrapper for a hamburger?

CHANDLER: Yeah. Just having a place where you didn't have waitstaff, you didn't have utensils, you can have cups or plates, where you could just go eat and take what you're eating with you wherever you went. You weren't tied down to the plate.

GONZALEZ: By the '60s and '70s, drive-ins start going away and drive-throughs take off. And this change in how Americans ate on the go through drive-throughs motivated one really signature feature in cars - the cup holder.

CHANDLER: The cup holder kind of grew out of this mobile dining habit that more and more Americans were embracing. It almost doesn't get more American than the cup holder when it comes to inventions.

GONZALEZ: People are dropping their Cokes in their newfangled cup holders and driving off with their burgers and fries.

DIHEL: And potentially, getting all the way home before they ate their fries (laughter).

GONZALEZ: No one does that. You take it out of the bag.

This is Deb Dihel again from the China potato trip.

You at least start munching on the fries on the drive home, right?

DIHEL: Right, but somebody at home may be waiting for those fries.

GONZALEZ: That's true - the poor chump at home.

By 1988, for the first time, more fast-food orders were taken at a drive-through window than at the restaurant. And this was a problem for the wimpy french fry because by the time you got home from the drive-through, the fries were no good. Remember - they were only meant to be consumed five to seven minutes out of the oil.

DIHEL: After that, it starts to go downhill pretty fast. So drive-throughs were threatened in a very similar way that potentially home delivery is, right? Same logic.

GONZALEZ: They were worried that people in the '80s would stop ordering fries, which is not great for a potato company.

DIHEL: So back then - almost 20, 25 years ago - Lamb Weston invented a coating called Stealth, which was their secret coating that you couldn't see and you couldn't tell was on the french fry, but it lasted - it was crispier longer, up to 12 to 15 minutes.

GONZALEZ: It's a starchy coating that you can't see.

DIHEL: So it's stealth. It's Stealth french fries. And that allowed us to be successful in the drive-throughs.

GONZALEZ: Can you say, like - have I had a Stealth french fry at a drive-through restaurant before?

DIHEL: I'm sure you have had a Stealth french fry at a drive-through before, yeah.

GONZALEZ: So they solved the drive-through problem. And if you've had a french fry in the past few decades, you've probably been eating the secret, longer-lasting Stealth french fries. But this potato company has a new problem now - delivery. And a 12- to 15-minute lasting Stealth french fry isn't going to cut it because delivery takes longer than a drive-through. The average delivery wait time in a busy city is 20 to 30 minutes because drivers pick up multiple orders and make multiple stops.

So Deb decides she is going to reinvent the french fry to stay warm and crispy for 30 minutes and, really, up to 45 minutes just to be safe, you know, to, like, encompass any situation that the poor french fry might find itself in. She comes back from China and heads straight to Lamb Weston's potato innovation headquarters - real place - in Richland, Washington. And I met Deb there to see what they've been up to.

Wow, it really smells like potatoes in here.

It's a place with potatoes everywhere - like, literally flying in tubes above my head.

DIHEL: So we're walking under potatoes right now, walking under...

GONZALEZ: These pipes? These pipes are carrying potatoes?

DIHEL: Yeah, they're full of potatoes, like a Monorail from Disneyland.

GONZALEZ: And Deb and her colleagues at Potato Disneyland, they fry potatoes and then freeze them and sell them to restaurants and fast-food chains and grocery stores all over the world - 7 billion pounds of cut and cooked potatoes, annually. That's more frozen potatoes than anyone else in America.

DIHEL: Steak-cut fries, crinkle cuts, Twister fries, shredded potatoes. We make dices. We make slices.

GONZALEZ: They basically make all potatoes, just not whole potatoes.

DIHEL: Hash browns, cuts that you can dip that look like a scoop.

GONZALEZ: So when Deb comes back from China and tells everyone, we need Stealth 2.0 - we need to double or triple the life of a french fry, from the 12-minute drive-through fry to 30 or 40 minutes to survive delivery - everyone is like, um?

DIHEL: And like, what?

GONZALEZ: Remember - this was five years ago, before fast-food chains were partnering with delivery apps. And the potato company just didn't think this was the future.

DIHEL: There was some resistance.

GONZALEZ: They didn't think the trend would hit the U.S.

DIHEL: Why? You know, why would somebody wait 30 minutes?

GONZALEZ: They pass on reinventing the fry. They have other priorities, like a boardwalk fry - a garlic-y (ph) fry reminiscent of a boardwalk french fry. But Deb? Deb works on her new fry anyway.

DIHEL: I wouldn't say worked on it in secret, but we certainly didn't tell a lot of people we were working on it.

GONZALEZ: Really? OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DIHEL: Well, that's the beauty about being in charge, you know? I could just get a project started and got my food scientists together.

GONZALEZ: They are fighting the voodoo magic that makes a french fry soggy.

DIHEL: Yeah. And the voodoo magic is called water. So what happens?

GONZALEZ: Oh, water's the enemy?

DIHEL: Water's the enemy, for sure.

GONZALEZ: The water is in the middle of the fry - that's what makes it soft. But the water likes to naturally migrate out, and that water is what makes the outside of the fry soggy.

DIHEL: So as a food scientist, our job is to figure out, how do we keep the water where it's supposed to stay?

GONZALEZ: That's what you're trying to figure out? (Laughter).

DIHEL: Yeah, that's - it's as simple as that. Like, where's the water? What's causing it to move? How can we slow it down? And if we can slow it down long enough or even prevent it from moving there...

GONZALEZ: At all.

DIHEL: ...It'll be crispy forever.

GONZALEZ: But this wouldn't be easy. When they did create the Stealth french fry in the '90s, they tried everything they could, and the longest they could get a french fry to last was 15 minutes.

DIHEL: So it's not like we haven't tried it before; they did try it before. So it would take some different approach that we hadn't stumbled on before.

GONZALEZ: They're using some starches again and creating a new wash that all the raw fries take, like, a shower in. And they get one batch to stay good for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes. But those fries came out too tough; they're not a tender, crisp fry. Then there's a version where the coating's too thick. You can see it. So it doesn't feel like a regular french fry. It took two years of tinkering with the formula to get it - a 30- to 45-minute-lasting, good french fry.

Did you do anything to celebrate?

TONY HENSON: We gave high-fives.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: This is Tony Henson.

Hi, Tony.

HENSON: Hi. How you doing?

DIHEL: He's actually the developer.

HENSON: Oh, don't put me on the spot like that.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Developer, meaning you created this french fry?

HENSON: Yes (laughter).

GONZALEZ: You're not, like, popping bottles of champagne, like...

HENSON: We may have popped some champagne. That's right - we went for ice cream. Yeah, we're such sweet people.

(LAUGHTER)

DIHEL: So my next move was, like, perfect. Just - we will pull this out when we need this, right?

GONZALEZ: Oh, you still don't tell people? You're not like - it's still kind of, like, a secret-ish thing?

DIHEL: Yeah, still secret-ish thing - so it's in our back pocket.

GONZALEZ: Deb was waiting for Americans to start ordering delivery fast food. Like, they've always ordered takeout but not fast food, not french fries. And then fast food chains started partnering up with ridesharing apps.

DIHEL: It's happening.

GONZALEZ: America is going to need longer-lasting fries.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL BUBBLING)

GONZALEZ: And these are them bubbling in hot oil.

And what is this called?

DIHEL: So crispy on delivery - short and sweet.

GONZALEZ: Aw, a slightly less cool name than Stealth, right?

(LAUGHTER)

HENSON: Yeah. Well, you know, we can't have homeruns every time for naming.

DIHEL: You're going to get me in trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

DIHEL: OK, so this is the Crispy on Delivery.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAN SHAKING)

GONZALEZ: Tony shakes them, dumps them, out salts them. And now I'm going to wait 30 minutes to test them out for you to see if they actually stay warm and crispy longer. So we're waiting 30 minutes.

OK.

Except, obviously, I can't wait.

Oh, it's hot.

DIHEL: Hot.

GONZALEZ: A real 30 minutes later, they bring out the fries in takeout bags to simulate the real delivery experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG RUSTLING)

DIHEL: OK, so this is a spit cup.

GONZALEZ: Spit cup to spit out the French fries.

DIHEL: Right.

GONZALEZ: Not going to happen.

DIHEL: OK.

GONZALEZ: I mean, I don't think so.

DIHEL: No. No, you shouldn't. But if you absolutely have to because you're full of french fries, which does happen, you can spit them out. And it's acceptable behavior.

GONZALEZ: Oh, OK (laughter).

DIHEL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: They want me to try two kinds of fries - the old kind of fry and the new kind of fry. Both have been sitting in a bag for 30 minutes. So first, I try the old kind of fry.

Oh, it's all floppy.

HENSON: (Laughter).

DIHEL: See. This makes me upset.

GONZALEZ: The floppiness (ph)?

HENSON: (Laughter).

DIHEL: Yeah. Try it.

GONZALEZ: No crisp.

DIHEL: It doesn't have much taste at all. It just loses its charm.

GONZALEZ: It does. It just loses the thing that makes it a french fry.

Next, I try the new fry - the one with the new and improved coating.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

GONZALEZ: That is a good, crispy french fry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

HENSON: Listen to that crunch (laughter).

GONZALEZ: So I'm actually surprised by - I thought it was going to be, like, too crispy. But it just tastes like a regular french fry.

It kind of sounds like it's too crunchy, but it honestly just tastes like a regular french fry right out of the oil, still soft on the inside.

You spit it out. Oh, my goodness (laughter).

DIHEL: You don't understand. I do this every day, but I do eat some. I ate some before you - I came in to talk to you.

GONZALEZ: I believe you. So...

They're starting to pitch these fries to fast food chains now. So they're not in stores yet, but Deb says they could be in a couple months. You won't know it's a crispy on delivery fry just like you don't know when you're eating a stealth fry. You'll just know you had a better french fry delivery experience. And Deb's hoping that keeps people ordering french fries. Wanting our food to come to us is not a trend that Deb thinks will reverse anytime soon, so they're already looking to what's next.

DIHEL: Picture this - like, a self-driving french-fry-cooking car.

GONZALEZ: Wait - like a car with a hot oil deep fryer in the trunk of the car?

DIHEL: It could be an air fryer so you can do something maybe a little safer than a hot oil deep fry. But, yeah, we're working on it.

GONZALEZ: Deb says robots are already making pizzas and omelets and salads. And making that robot mobile doesn't feel like such a stretch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: If you have a story idea, email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @PlanetMoney. And we're looking for our next intern at PLANET MONEY. The job pays. We have a lot of fun here, so you should apply. The deadline is November 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: By the way, Deb and I went back and tested the new longer-lasting french fries an hour later.

DIHEL: OK, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

GONZALEZ: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

DIHEL: This is, like, crispier than when we started 30 minutes - this is probably an hour old. And look how crispy it is.

GONZALEZ: Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

This is remarkably crispy.

I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

Can I take some of these home with me?

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