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Photo by Courtney OquistPotato chip manufacturer Rusty Vasterling hasn't felt the economic crunch like chip manufacturers up north—you know, of the silicon variety.
"We make 2,500 bags a week, and we sell 2,500 bags a week," he said. "I just left a store where the owner said that Rusty's Chips are the No. 1-selling chip, even better than Frito-Lay's. And these aren't just first-time buyers—people buy 'em over and over."
Born in Huntington Beach in 1950, Rusty washed up on OC's shores while learning to surf and sail at the age of 10. He was part owner of DP Sports Bar and the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa. And his twin sons, Paul and Russell (age 22), play in the local band Live Animals.
It was on one of his rare trips out of Orange County that he found the inspiration for Rusty's Chips, dubbed Balboa Island Style Hand Made Potato Chips. During a trip to Hawaii in 1984, Rusty found golden-brown beauties in Maui that were thicker and more flavorful than the ones he had encountered on the mainland. And Maui was full of vacationing Southern Californians who seemed to take to the chips they couldn't get at home.
"Everybody loved the Maui Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips, and I wanted to bring the chips to California," he said.
Rusty returned home to perfect his own recipe in the kitchen of Five Crowns restaurant, where he worked as a manager. He hand-made 30 to 40 bags per night, and within six years, they were in supermarkets and corner liquor stores throughout Southern California. Rusty licensed his brand name to a group of people, but things "didn't go well," and he ended up taking them to federal court. The next incarnation of Rusty's Chips didn't go much better: "There was a nice glossy bag with my picture and the story of Rusty's Chips on the back," he said, "but my chips weren't in the bag."
Finally, in 1998, he got his wish to make chips and "just be Rusty." The Rusty's Chips now found in select stores throughout OC are manufactured by hand at Clayton Shurley's Real BBQ in Newport Beach. They sit in a bag he designed to "give them a Balboa Island feel. . . . The bag acts as a picture frame for the chips with a beach-ish, tiki hut feel."
But what the hell is a Balboa Island-style potato chip? They're thick enough to survive a crushing trip to the beach at the bottom of a picnic basket, and they should come with a warning: BEWARE, DENTURE WEARERS—CRUNCHIER THAN SAFETY GLASS. They aren't too greasy, and they have a strong potato flavor with a pinch of sun-dried French Mediterranean sea saltiness.
My only gripe: one bag is four servings, which amounts to a measly six chips per serving. Rusty's Chips are so good that if I'm going to haul my ass off the couch during a commercial break, it's not going to be for six chips. I want to throw the bag over my shoulder, drag it back to the couch and bury my arm in it up to the elbow.
Rusty's twins suggest ignoring serving sizes and consuming the chips doused with half a bottle of hot sauce and accompanied by "mass quantities of beer."
Whether you're an OC garage-band member or a dieting Newport Beach soccer mom, you'll find a friend in Rusty and his chips. "They're a food product that people like," Rusty said. "Low-fat, cholesterol-free and made of all natural ingredients. With only five grams of fat, they could even be considered good for you."
Rusty's last bite of advice: "Don't buy chips from a skinny guy because he's not eating them."To taste a little bit of Balboa heaven, find Rusty at the Orange County Market Place Swap Meet, visit www.rustyschips.com for store locations, or hop over to Clayton Shurley's Real BBQ, 4341 MacArthur Blvd., Ste. B, Newport Beach, (800) 577-4888.