Chip chip hooray: Exploring the Valley’s light, crispy attractions

At the Route 11 Potato Chips factory near Harrisonburg, visitors can watch as raw, unpeeled spuds are transformed into freshly bagged chips. Photo courtesy Route 11 Potato Chips At the Route 11 Potato Chips factory near Harrisonburg, visitors can watch as raw, unpeeled spuds are transformed into freshly bagged chips. Photo courtesy Route 11 Potato Chips

Believe it or not, there are some things Charlottesville still doesn’t have, which is a great reason to get out of town now and then. Another great reason is that many towns within striking distance of Charlottesville are attractive and thriving. When a friend and I, with our combined five kids, pulled into Harrisonburg on a recent afternoon, we both appreciated having a city within easy reach that clearly offers its own distinct world to explore.

Then again, we knew exactly where we were headed. That would be Ruby’s Arcade, which I discovered with my two girls on a rainy day about a year ago. Tucked into downtown Harrisonburg, it’s a combination restaurant and game room that, at least on weekday afternoons, is deliciously family-friendly. (I suspect that, with its full bar and happy hour specials, it caters to a different crowd in the evening.)

But what a great concept! In we walked and within five minutes, we were embarking on a group game of duckpin bowling, played on an antique apparatus salvaged from an unknown 1950s establishment somewhere in America. The kids worked on refining their granny-stance technique—and, I must say, improved with every frame—while my friend and I pondered Ruby’s large menu.

Soon, the small table at the head of our lane was somehow managing to hold two pizzas, mac ’n’ cheese, chips, fries, and cups and plates for seven people. We munched and bowled against a backdrop of nicely muraled walls. Between turns, the kids explored the variety of games that fill the sprawling space beneath the arcade’s low ceiling.

Air hockey proved popular. There are pool tables, plus darts, shuffleboard, foosball, a small selection of video games, and a big selection of board games. Last but not least is ping pong, in which my friend and I soon became so happily engaged that the kids had to drag us out of the arcade. The best part: All the games were free. Ruby’s doesn’t make this super clear on its website, but on a mellow weekday, you pay only for food.

We piled back in the van. Next stop: the Route 11 Potato Chips factory, a few miles up Interstate 81. We hadn’t been here before and weren’t prepared for the enticing smell that hit our noses as soon as we stepped out of the car. Inside the large tasting room, we learned that this particular day at the factory was devoted to producing sweet potato chips. Mmmm.

You can’t actually enter the production area, but you can get a darn good look at how the chips are made by gazing through large interior windows. An employee gave us a brief intro to what we were seeing and spouted off a few impressive figures, including the 14,000 pounds of potatoes that the factory can process in a day.

A fraction of those were, as we watched, undergoing a rapid transformation from peeled raw spuds to freshly bagged chips, all packaged up in boxes. Sliced potatoes poured off the end of a conveyor belt into a steamy vat of hot oil where a snakelike stirring rod trundled back and forth. Inspectors waved at the kids through the window as they plucked out less-than-perfect chips, to be fed, we were told, to local cows.

Upstairs, a fascinating machine portions out the chips just before they plunge through a tube (like something out of a Roald Dahl story), into an even more fascinating machine that folded, filled, and sealed the bags. Personally, I could have watched this all day—there was something so alluringly behind-the-scenes about seeing, for the first time in my life, how a chip bag is engineered.

The kids were impressed, too, but they didn’t forget to make frequent visits to the sample table offering a rainbow of flavors. We bought everybody a small bag of their choice, plus a big clear plastic bag of uber-fresh sweet potato chips.

On the way out, my friend picked up a brochure for nearby Shenandoah Caverns and read me a description of one of the caverns’ ancillary attractions: American Celebration, a museum of parade floats. We agreed that it sounded like fun, and then five minutes later we stumbled across that very museum on our way back to the highway.

Sadly, the museum’s closed for the season, but they’re hosting a haunted house through Halloween. And a friendly employee invited us to check out the Yellow Barn event venue across the road, which houses some antique farm equipment and a working beehive. We opted to sprawl on the manicured lawn instead, gazing at a replica of the Statue of Liberty, while the kids played sardines. Sometimes, it’s those unscheduled, unofficial moments that turn out to be the best parts of a trip. And now we have a few reasons to go back.

If you go:

Ruby’s Arcade is located at 100B 165 S. Main Street in Harrisonburg. Call (540)615-5351 for hours and details on pricing (games are not always free).

The Route 11 Potato Chips factory is located in Mt. Jackson and is open to the public Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm. If you want to catch the frying in action, call ahead: (540) 477-9664.

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