Ron Zappe, founder of Gramercy chippery, dies

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2010



GRAMERCY – Ron Zappe, the namesake and creator of Gramercy’s own Zapp’s Potato Chips, died Tuesday in Houston while undergoing treatment for throat cancer. He was 67.

A transplant from Houston, Zappe moved to Louisiana after his family-owned oil businesses went bankrupt in the oil bust of the 1980s.

According to Zapp’s General Manager Rod Olson, Zappe’s entrepreneurial skill and passion for new ideas were the driving forces behind starting the “little chippery” company in 1985.

“One afternoon while he was going through bankruptcy paperwork, his wife Anne brought home a bag of kettle-fried potato chips from a company called Groff’s in Brookshire, Texas,” Olson said. “It was a unique flavor, and it was something he thought he could market well in Louisiana. His original plan was to distribute Groff’s chips in places like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but the company told him they could barely handle demand from Texas. At that point he decided to learn what he could from Groff’s operations before setting out on his own.”

Olson said Zappe salvaged whatever oilfield equipment he could use from his businesses and rented space at the former Faucheux Chevrolet dealership in Gramercy to use as a manufacturing plant with the idea that the small St. James Parish community was right between his two biggest markets – Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Zappe’s potato chip venture was initially shunned by banks leery of handing out a loan to a man whose business involved just selling chips. Olson said Zappe was turned away by 10 banks before the 11th, the Bank of St. John, finally gave him a chance.

Zappe experimented with and perfected a thicker-cut kettle-fried chip using a high-grade peanut oil. He developed an assortment of spice mixes and eventually created his first unique flavor, a Cajun-spiced chip known as “Cajun Craw-tators.”

“It was the first Cajun-spiced chip on the market at the time,” Olson said. “It would eventually prompt other companies to produce their own versions, but we were first.”

Olson said a few months after Zappe developed Cajun Craw-tators, Frito Lay came out with a spicy version of their “Ruffles” chips. He said the company used Louisiana Chef Justin Wilson as a spokesperson, but it never really bothered Zappe.

“He told me a story one time about a run-in he had with Justin one day,” Olson said. “He said Justin told him ‘Ron, I get my money from Frito Lay, but I eat your chips.’ He always got a kick out of that.

Olson said Zappe’s flamboyant personality landed him in national publications such as People Magazine and the Wall Street Journal and also earned him a spot on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1997. Even with all the attention, Olson said Zappe always stayed relatively humble.

“He often said his proudest achievement was that he paid his bills on time,” Olson said. “At one point he could be bigger than life, and at another he was extremely humble. He was well liked, and he never slowed down a bit.”

Zappe was a major supporter of Louisiana charities, including the Baton Rouge Food Bank, where he served on the board of directors. Olson said he was a hands-on manager who was always involved in every aspect of the operation.

Zappe is survived by his wife, Anne; a son, Eric Zappe; a daughter, Kristin Hopper; and three grandchildren. Visitation will be held today from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. A funeral service will follow.