Potato chip connoisseurs are likely familiar with Route 11 potato chips. Route 11 was founded in 1992 and is based in Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, but the company’s roots lie in downtown DC and the Tabard Inn, the venerable Dupont Circle brunch spot that was among the area’s first farm-to-table restaurants.
In the late 1970s, Edward and Fritzi Cohen, the inn’s owners, started Tabard Farm Potato Chips as a side business. They sold tubs of organic chips to boutique and high-end shops like Williams-Sonoma. In the early 1980s, Tabard Farm began offering seasonal Yukon Gold potato chips. Their expertise went international in 1989 when Tabard Farm began supplying machinery and training to agricultural cooperatives in the Soviet Union.
In 1992, the Cohens’ daughter Sarah spun off the chip-making business and founded Route 11 Potato Chips. Route 11 offers a glimpse (and a taste) of this origin story with their Tabard Farm Yukon Gold Potato Chips. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) interviewed Sarah Cohen, Route 11’s proprietor, about her family history and what makes Yukon Gold potatoes so special.
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington: Tabard Farm Yukon Gold chips have their origins in the Tabard Inn, before the founding of Route 11. What’s the story?
Sarah Cohen: The prequel to Route 11 starts at the Tabard Inn. My parents, Edward and his wife Fritzi [Cohen], bought the Tabard Inn in 1975. They purchased the hotel in part to save it from being demolished to make way for a high-rise office building. The restaurant opened a few years later, and Nora Poullion was the first Tabard chef. She and my father shared the same interest in where food comes from and how it’s grown.
My dad was also an avid gardener who spent much of his free time in the dirt. Soon after the Tabard Inn’s kitchen started serving meals, my dad found a piece of property near Front Royal, VA, and a genius, biodynamic farmer named Susan [Peterson] to run the farm, which grew food for the Inn. This was the beginning of Tabard Farm. Tabard Farm grew vegetables for the Tabard Inn and also delivered to about 20 restaurants in DC.
One day, a neighboring organic farmer told my dad a story of how he’d planted all these potatoes for two brothers who were then arrested for dealing cocaine and put in prison. He had just planted all these potatoes and didn’t know what he was going to do. My dad got a big smile and a sparkle in his eye and knew what to do: make potato chips!
My dad was potato-obsessed in general, and [a few years later] when the Yukon Gold potato began to appear in seed catalogs, he thought it would be great to try those as chips. And they were incredible!
JHSGW: The image on the bag presents the iconic Inn as a farmhouse. Where did the idea for that image come from, and who created it?
Cohen: The image on the bag of the Tabard in a potato field was the original artwork for the Yukon Gold bag done [for Tabard Farm Potato Chips] in the early 1980s by the sister of a Tabard kitchen sous chef.
JHSGW: Many Washington-area Jews have a mom-and-pop grocery or some other shop as part of their family history. I often hear wonderful stories about the fun and warmth of growing up living over and, in many ways, in the store. What was it like growing up with and in the Tabard Inn?
Cohen: My two brothers and I worked at the Tabard as we grew up—I did from the age of 12 and my brothers into adulthood and up until very recently. My parents never really related to the idea of a mom-and-pop business. They were very political and cerebral and from the get-go hired great people, who helped grow the Tabard into the icon that it is today.
My parents definitely set the tone for the place. It was never your typical corporate, cookie-cutter hotel. Neither of them ever worked the front lines of the business. But the Tabard is what it is because of their original vision [to offer organic, farm-to-table food] and the great staff that it attracted over the years. It was an awesome and fun business to grow up in.
JHSGW: These chips are more than just a nod to Route 11’s roots in your parents’ business. How do you characterize your contribution to your family’s culinary and entrepreneurial history? Are there certain values or a spirit that flows through it all?
Cohen: Route 11 very much reflects the values and spirit of my family’s relationship with food and hospitality. My dad loved to grow vegetables, and my mom is a great cook. Tabard has an authenticity that is hard to find these days. I would say the same for Route 11.
There are so many smoke and mirrors in the world of food, and we produce this product ourselves, working closely with several growers, forging relationships with our fans and inviting people to come see how the chips are made. It’s the real deal. The true inspiration for Route 11 was to try and make a really, really good potato chip without cutting the corners on ingredients or methods, which is what happens so often with most snack foods.
JHSGW: So what makes Yukon Gold potatoes so special?
Cohen: The Yukon Golds are a yellow-flesh potato with a built-in buttery flavor. Who doesn’t love butter? When we cook them, our factory smells like buttered popcorn.
JHSGW: I’m not asking you to give up any secrets, but is there a trick to making the perfect Yukon Gold chip?
Cohen: The Yukon Golds are seasonal, August to October. They can’t be stored year-round and still make a great potato chip. They’re best made from freshly dug Yukons.
JHSGW: What burning question have I missed?
Cohen: Tabard Farm Yukon Gold Potato Chips were the first Yukon Gold Potato Chip ever marketed. That’s pretty cool. I don’t think many people know that.
Top photo: Chips coming out of the cooker at Route 11’s factory in the Shenandoah Valley. Courtesy of Sarah Cohen and Route 11.