Having grown up in a household in which we ate simply and fairly close to the land, I’m pretty sure I didn’t consume my first Cheeto until college.
I don’t remember the exact occasion—I like to imagine it as a coming-of-age moment, along with my first taste of Twinkie and ferreting out the existence of the Fluffernutter sandwich.
But I also have a sense memory of that first bite, with its appealing mix of the familiar and the novel (fried cornmeal and cheese-like powder had been done, though separately, in other convenience foods, but the texture: the lumps, crags and tenacious crispiness were experiences in and of themselves).
Like many of the diabolically well-engineered snack foods of modern American culture, Cheetos didn’t get that savory snap by accident. While I was aware of the role food science and biopsychology play in creating nutritionally void but crave-able foodstuffs, this photo essay by Wired magazine reminded me that even the most careful analysis is only as good as its application.
Wired’s factory tour suggests that Frito-Lay takes its brand, and its brand of quality, quite seriously. The steps illustrated evoke what the American Society of Quality calls a “process view”:
- They set a goal (Frito-Lay claims it wants to create “playfully mischievous cheesy crunch”—I think world junk-food dominance is a bit higher on the list, but that’s just a guess)
- They identified a metric to represent that goal (A carefully formulated brand ideal—a model Cheeto—bears the standard)
- They implemented a process in the service of the goal (Elaborate manufacturing using tailored ingredients and techniques assures that appearance, flavor, texture and composition are replicated)
- They checked the output against the metric (Finally, lab analysis and a team of quality testers, with their clean-room caps and flavor-neutralizing drinks, are deployed to judge wannabes against exemplary curls)
I have to admit a special fascination for the QC step. Although I’ve not had a Cheeto in years, there’s something reassuring about the idea that a 4-person team, chosen for their professionalism and the delicacy of their palates, is making sure that the last Cheeto in the bag, plucked free with fingers stained orange to the knuckle, is as mindlessly tasty as the first.
P.S. A point in the quality-is-relative column: This outlier Cheeto seems to have slipped past our intrepid F-L QC team, but the snack hound who found it wasn’t complaining.[image: mrbriandesign]