New England supermarkets are scoring extra points in the salty snack arena by stocking chips and salsa bearing the monikers of local college teams.
The chips have gained something of a cult following among college students and alumni, in part because a portion of proceeds from sales is given to charity and the colleges. They also have given a boost to snack department profits since they are rarely, if ever, placed on sale.
At least two brands of chips and salsa have made their way to store shelves. UConn Huskies products are produced by Tailgate Products, Andover, Conn., and UMass Minutemen Tortilla Chips are sourced by Happy Valley Products, in the University of Massachusetts' hometown of Amherst.
The chips are being carried in selected Stop & Shop, Big Y, Victory, A&P, Waldbaum's Foodmart, Edwards Super Food Stores, IGA, Grand Union, Price Chopper, Pathmark and ShopRite stores in communities surrounding the campuses.
Both brands of chips received a boost during the recent National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championships when the Minutemen and Huskies both advanced far into the tournament. Consumer awareness was further heightened when a local television station did a report on the sales of the chips from a Stop & Shop store.
"The reason we are carrying the chips is because we want to show loyalty toward UConn and the Minutemen," said Terry Vandewater, a corporate spokeswoman for Stop & Shop Cos., Boston.
A store-level source at a Waldbaum's Foodmart in the Hartford area said the UConn Huskies products have been seeing "excellent" sales.
"We have them in a separate rack display right in front of the deli counter. We really don't advertise it; it really just sells on its own because part of the proceeds of the sales goes to cancer research," the source said.
Peter Dudis, director of grocery operations at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said the UConn products sell at a steady rate in some of its Connecticut stores, while it is currently testing the Minutemen chips at a few of its Massachusetts locations.
"Certain towns seem to do better than others, and stores that are very close to either the Storrs campus of [the University of Connecticut], or the UCONN Health Center in Farmington do very well in sales. There are some other towns where we have stores and there is a strong alumni presence, and those products do well in those towns, also," he said.
"They are promoted through in-store price promotion only and are not advertised in our flier because they are not in all of our stores," he added, noting that the profit margin on the chips is similar to that of the national and regional brands.
A portion of UConn Huskies sales is donated to children's cancer research and treatment through the University of Connecticut Health Center and the university's Children's Cancer Fund. Happy Valley donates 10% of its net sales, or roughly 10 cents a bag, to the University of Massachusetts, in particular, its library.
Mike Zabkar, a principal of Tailgate Products, told SN its line was launched in October 1990 specifically to raise funds for children's cancer research. To date, more $200,000 has been raised.
"We're not a Paul Newman. We're just a quiet little deal that is doing our thing. "We're probably in about 350 retail outlets all together, including convenience stores," he said.
"We may not be moving as many units as a Wise or Eagle, but by the same token the stores are making a full margin on every bag and jar," Zabkar said. He added that Tailgate is now expanding a line of Huskies chili sauce previously available only for use at convenience store deli counters.
"This year a lot of hype has been created around our product because of the NCAA tournament, but actually our strongest months are during the summer because tortilla chips and salsa are products that sell well when people gather. We also sell well during sports season," Zabkar said.
Tim Holcombe, a UMass student who founded Happy Valley in May 1994, said his line has grown to encompass five items.
"The market is definitely statewide. Times are changing regarding the relationships of the states and the universities. This is a win-win way for money to be raised for the university," he said. "For the most part, the supermarkets really recognize the visibility of the public service and almost all have been really supportive of the idea," said Holcombe.