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Tasty bit of history comes with Chifles Plantain Chips

The story of Tampa's Chifles Plantain Chips began as a romance that would have made the perfect screenplay for an old black and white movie. Segundo Argudo, a dashing young teacher, arrived in Washington, D.C., from Ecuador in 1944 to study geophysics on a special scholarship. Lovely North Carolina native Peggy Moore, now 90, worked as a secretary in the Department of Agriculture and met Argudo while staying at a nearby boarding house for professionals and foreign students. Although Argudo was still perfecting his English and Moore spoke no Spanish, the two discovered they both possessed a passion for adventure. Little did they know their relationship would give birth to two kids and a snack that would become a Tampa trademark and national staple.

• • •

Argudo loved to tell his children that when he arrived in Washington, D.C., he "looked around for the prettiest girl who could help me learn my English better."

He found her in Moore, a green-eyed beauty full of Southern charm and a sense of independence.

She had never ventured far from her home in North Carolina. But something about meeting people from other cultures fascinated her.

She found herself very attracted to the ambitious man from Ecuador.

A courtship ensued and in 1949 Moore accepted Argudo's marriage proposal. Without looking back she boarded a Pan Am plane for Ecuador with her wedding dress and trousseau.

She didn't know the language but said her vows in Spanish, saying, "si," when prompted by Argudo.

Within weeks of the wedding, Argudo, now a geophysicist, set off into the Ecuadorian jungle with an oil exploration field team, leaving his bride alone with her new in-laws.

They welcomed her like an American princess with open arms. "Peggycita," as her new mother-in-law came to call her, slowly began to learn basic Spanish words.

At church she became friends with American missionaries who helped her make the transition. Life with Segundo was never dull and she embraced the culture.

"Before that, I was very serious about how I lived my life," said Peggy, who eventually mastered the language. "The Spanish love to laugh and are very family-oriented. I quickly became fluent."

Argudo eventually earned jobs with American oil companies like Shell and Phillips and worked in a number of Latin American countries. Through the transfers the couple always enjoyed eating a fried plantain snack the natives called chifles.

"We used to see vendors in the streets of Havana serving the plantain chips on newspaper," Peggy said. "I told him that would be a wonderful snack to sell in the states and we kept it in the back of our minds."

• • •

After living in Cuba, the couple moved to the United States. A daughter, Stefanie, and a son, Ricardo, were born in Houston.

They came to Tampa at the urging of Segundo's father, who wanted them to start a banana importing business.

Instead, the Argudos began creating their own version of the thin, crispy chifles chips.

Their kitchen became their laboratory complete with Peggy's electric deep fryer and mandoline slicer. There were many hours of experimenting.

"My dad, coming from a scientific background, wrote down everything—the salt, the type of oil, the perfect temperature of the oil, everything." said Stefanie Argudo Mackenzie, who now serves as vice president.

In 1963 he and Peggy finally felt they had a plantain chip that would sell. The 50-year journey had begun.

"We were very conservative and built it as we could afford it," Peggy said. "I guess at that point our vision was to just make enough to live comfortably and give our children their college educations."

In the beginning, Argudo marketed his product to small Latin bodegas, or small grocers.

His territory eventually grew to a sizable distribution, reaching beyond Florida to New York, Baltimore, Boston and New Jersey.

The product also crossed cultural barriers, appealing to a wider market than just Hispanic consumers.

• • •

Today if you walk into the Plantain Products Co. plant on Causeway Boulevard, you smell the aroma of plantains and cassavas being cooked.

The oil that Chifles (pronounced chee-flays) are cooked in is filtered all day long. The all-natural, gluten-free snacks are also certified kosher, approved by a Jewish rabbi who visits every month. And they are not genetically modified.

Chifles plantain products can now be found in many large supermarkets like Sweetbay and Publix. The Food Network featured them on Unwrapped and Simply Delicioso. JetBlue hands them out to passengers and movie producers have put the product in scenes for films like Channing Tatum's Fighting.

Herb White, an assistant plant manager who oversees production where he once worked part-time as a young college student, also notes that when visitors come to the Tampa area they sometimes call the phone number on the bag to find out where they can get more of the chips.

It's a product that keeps drawing fans once they taste it. Besides corporate orders the company also ships individual orders.

"A lot of people find our product on vacation and want to get it where they live. It's very unique and appetizing," White said.

• • •

Daughter Stefanie came on board after working as a project manager with Verizon when her brother, Ricardo, turned his attention to charity work.

She says managing the family business has been a whole other education and has discovered something about her father and herself.

"I have found out I'm a lot more like him than I had thought," Stefanie said.

On Fridays, Peggy still comes to the company office staying busy keeping her Latin American business connections open. During the rest of the week, she works from her home giving a lot of her time to charities in Central America.

Although Segundo — her husband and partner — died in 2000, Peggy carries on with the business as its CEO and president. She does so with the confidence that came from being an equal partner who stayed involved in every part of the business.

Sometimes when she ponders a decision, she dreams she's discussing it with Segundo.

"We've traveled all over the world, and we've been to all the continents," Peggy said. "It's been a wonderful life."

Belinda Kramer can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

>> Fast facts

How they make the Chifles plantain chip

Herb White, assistant plant manager for the Plantain Products Co., said while automation has added expediency to how the famed Chifles chips are made, the company is still using the same approach it implemented when he began working at the plant as a part-time college student 36 years ago.

It still begins with receiving peeled plantains in 50-pound bags that are kept fresh in a cooler set between 36 and 40 degrees. They are then sliced, prepped for frying and seasoned and packaged. It's a process that takes 8-10 minutes so that when the cases are packed, they're still warm.

"Keeping the product consistent with how it began is important," White said. "If you would take a bag and freeze it in time, it would be the same product."

Tasty bit of history comes with Chifles Plantain Chips 03/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 4:15pm]
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