Home-delivered fast food is a booming global business, but when it comes to French fries, there’s a hitch.
They often get soggy on the ride. So now, top fry-makers are racing to perfect a crispy fry that can survive a 15-minute ride with a food delivery service. Companies right here in the Northwest are frying up a crisp solution to this soggy situation.
To truly get the facts on delivered French fries, I ordered some.
My dog, Poa, starts barking when Uber Eats driver Crystal Begallia comes to my door. And I asked her if she stresses over delivering cold and limp fries to her customers. “I get kind of worried,” Begallia said. “Especially if I pick up food from one of the bigger restaurants, and they are spending quite a bit of money. Hopefully it’s still hot when I get to you.”
One reason fries can lose their crunch is because they’re often delivered in closed containers.
“Because you’re sealing them in like a sauna,” said Deb Dihel, head of innovation for large potato processing firm, Lamb Weston. “And they just get soggy really quickly. So, it’s like the worst case scenario for a French fry.”
Lamb Weston is based in Eagle, Idaho -- that state famous for its potatoes -- but has major processing plants and an innovation center in Washington's Tri-Cities area.
Dihel first saw what happened to delivery fries when she was in China five years ago. Restaurants there were putting hot fries into large clamshell containers and then into closed boxes for delivery.
“I was like no, no, no! Don’t do that!” she said. “At least leave it open, like at least let the steam vent and not make the product soggy.”
Dihel said that once out of the oil, most fries can only stay crisp for 12 minutes max. So, when she came home, she set about trying to fix the problem. The first part of the solution: changing how fries are made.
To show off several years of work, she opened a bag of frozen fries, right from the factory. She put them in a wire basket and lowered them into hot bubbly oil in Lamb Weston’s Richland test kitchen. They’d been dipped in a special starchy batter. Its exact ingredients are a trade-secret -- but it’s got potato starch and rice flour to keep fries crisp. When the fries came out they had a lot of crunch.
They were still crunchy 30 minutes later, even at room temperature.
Fast Food’s Evolution
The other part of keeping fries crunchy on a ride is packaging.
Lamb Weston developed a special container perforated with holes that’s supposed to let enough steam escape without the fries getting cold. It’s a design that big restaurant customers can copy -- and so can other packaging brands for themselves.
Innovating to meet the needs of busy consumers has always been part of fast food’s evolution, says Adam Chandler. He wrote the new book: Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. He’s not surprised that big potato is working to slay the soggy.
“Fast food really doesn’t seem to be the kind of food you’d like to eat when it’s older than five minutes,” Chandler said, adding that home delivery is “how people are eating
now, so the market is going to respond to that problem.”
He said the fast food industry and fry factories have always worked to adapt over time to what Americans and the world wants.
“For instance McDonalds famously used to make their fries with beef tallow,” Chandler
said. “While delicious, that was incredibly unhealthy.”
Now, he said, in response, most companies only fry in all-veggie oils due to U.S. consumers’ health concerns.
At a popular fast food restaurant in Kennewick, Wash., I met Blair Richardson for lunch.
Waitresses deftly carried in baskets of burgers and fries on round trays. Richardson is the CEO of Potatoes USA, a trade organization based in Denver. Of course, he ordered fries. Richardson said that because delivery is such a fast-growing segment of the total market, fry makers and restaurants are trying to figure this out.
“We are reimagining how we can bring potatoes to consumers today, and we never stop doing that,” Richardson said. “If an industry stops doing that, then they’re going to become irrelevant very quickly.”
Not far away, 24-hours a day, rivers of freshly-cut fries flow over conveyor belts inside Lamb Weston’s massive factory. Ideas are flowing at Lamb Weston, too. In the not-too-distant future, Deb Dihel envisions something bold for the fries of tomorrow: they’d be delivered hot and fresh by self-driving cars with onboard robots and air-fryers.