“If somebody had told me when I was 18 that I would be making potato chips and living in the Shenandoah Valley, I would have thought they were crazy,” says Sarah Cohen. But that’s exactly how the Woodstock resident has spent the last three decades, much to her own surprise.
Cohen, 56, is founder and president of Route 11 Potato Chips. The company, based in Mount Jackson, Va., specializes in small-batch kettle chips. She says people are often “awestruck” when they learn about her job, because “it’s not an occupation you hear about very often.”
There’s a lot of multi-tasking and decision making involved in running a potato chip company. Cohen has a hand in the company’s product development, staff recruitment, employee management and marketing. It’s a lot of work, but it does have it perks, she says. For one, a limitless supply of potato chips. In fact, Cohen eats her own product daily.
“That’s why I have to bike and hike so much. I’ve got to match the input with the output.”
A few months ago, Cohen started selling her chips in Israel. She sent her first shipment to an Israeli distributor right before Chanukah, and her second right before Passover.
Judaism, she says, registers with her “on a cellular level.”
The chip company started as a side project of her parents, Fritzi and Edward Cohen. Fritzi was a lawyer. Edward wrote and edited for the Washington Post in its financial section and on the national desk. In 1975, the couple purchased the Tabard Inn near Dupont Circle. Cohen says her parents bought the inn at auction to save it from demolition.
“Their friends thought they were crazy,” Cohen says. “I think they both were kind of romantics. And they just thought, ‘Why not do this?’ Even though they had no business experience.”
The Tabard Inn was a family business. Cohen and her two brothers worked there, doing odd jobs on the weekends. At 12, she was handling the front desk, answering the phone and showing guests to their rooms. Over the years, Fritzi and Edward expanded the business by adding a bar and restaurant.
Soon after starting the restaurant, Cohen’s father leased some land near Front Royal. The plan was to grow organic vegetables on the property for the hotel’s kitchen. Cohen spent her high school summers helping out on the farm, selling produce over the phone to other restaurants in Washington and helping with deliveries.
One day, a neighboring farmer came to Edward with a dilemma. The farmer had been contracted by a pair of brothers to grow potatoes. But after he had planted them, the brothers were arrested and convicted of dealing cocaine. With the buyer now gone, Edward Cohen decided to purchase the potatoes himself and sell them as chips.
“Sometimes I think, God, my fate in all of this is tied to a drug deal gone wrong,” Cohen says. “Had that not happened, who knows?”
Cohen says her parents found an Amish factory in Pennsylvania that could pack the newly named Tabard Farm Potato Chips. At this time, Cohen was pursuing her bachelor’s degree from Colorado College and was skeptical of her parents’ foray into the potato chip business.
“At that time in my life, I was kind of just shaking my head, like, Oh, my God, what are my parents doing now?”
In 1986, Cohen graduated and moved back to Washington. Her first job out of school was working for Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner. He was commissioned by the White House Historical Association to make a documentary on the history of the White House. So Cohen got to explore the home of then-President Ronald Reagan.
“It was one of the best jobs you could imagine, as far as starting a career,” Cohen says.
But her film career came to a sudden halt after Wagner was fired and the project was given to another director. “Everything went up in smoke with the White House,” Cohen says. She decided to go on a road trip to Washington State to visit a hotel her parents had bought. She ended up spending a year on the West Coast working as an oyster farmer.
Back in D.C., Cohen was directionless. In the end, her parents enlisted her to help manage their growing potato chip empire, which included a sale to Williams-Sonoma of 6,000 tons of chips.
“I really wasn’t interested,” she says. “I thought, well, I’ll do it, but I’m just going to do it for a year.”
She was wrong, of course. In 1992 as president, she relocated to a 3,200-square-foot feed store in Middletown and renamed the company after nearby Route 11. Today, the business employs 42 people.
“When I graduated from college, I hung on to the concept of follow your bliss. And I always thought that’s what I needed to do,” she says, looking back on her potato chip journey.
“I did find my calling. It was accidental, though. So I’m somebody who stumbled into their calling.”