When I visited France earlier this summer, I didn’t intend to eat so many potato chips.
Leading up to the trip, I imagined the croissants, the choux à la crème, the jambon-beurre sandwiches, let alone the dishes I’d never heard of and had yet to discover. And boy, did I enjoy all of those delicacies. But as I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport on my way back to the US, a bag of Lay’s Poulet Rôti caught my eye in a Relay! convenience store, and I couldn’t help but think, why not? What’s one more bag? With that, I happily purchased the roast chicken-flavored chips and crunched away while waiting to board my flight back to New York.
Why does this particular snack food in France (from an American brand, no less) have such a hold on me? It’s a question I asked myself in the checkout line, and I still wonder now. I suppose it’s part nostalgia, part fantasy. When I’m shopping at a French supermarket, I’m pretending, even if just for the moments between browsing the aisles and exiting through the automatic doors, that my time there isn’t temporary. And that’s why whenever I travel I always visit local supermarkets and a few regional chain stores too.
Don’t worry. When I travel, I still visit the cool dining establishments that friends, social media, and, of course, magazines tell me I must experience, but the grocery stores and local favorite chains really have a hold on my heart.
It all began on a family trip to Philadelphia in high school. I forced my parents to stop at a Wawa convenience store so I could try the coffee because I’d heard about the chain from a Tumblr blogger. Coming from southern California, I’d romanticized the idea of such expansive menu offerings (coffee, hot hoagies, milkshakes!) from a place where you could also pump your gas. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that my hometown chain, In-N-Out Burger, could be a tourist destination for others.
The list goes on: Tim Horton’s was an absolute must on a trip to Montreal, and Dutch Bros was a necessary pitstop on an Oregonian road trip a few years back. It almost doesn’t matter if the food is good, although that certainly helps, but the experience of ordering my morning coffee or grabbing snacks from a place where thousands of locals do daily is what ultimately makes me feel immersed in a destination. Why should you take the time to visit a local establishment while traveling? Let me count the ways.
You’ll discover delicious foods that might become your best souvenirs.
On my aforementioned France trip, my boyfriend and I stumbled into a supermarket in Paris one late afternoon, knowing that it wouldn’t be dinnertime until at least 9 pm, searching for a few snacks.
The Poulet Rôti chips immediately caught my eye. I remembered buying them almost as a joke with my brother on a previous vacation, only to discover they were actually delicious. They do not, in fact, taste like chicken but rather a savory mix of herbs and plenty of salt.
This time, whenever we passed a Carrefour or Monoprix, we ducked in for a quick stop to pick up some chips, often a much-needed snack between meals, sightseeing, and vintage shopping. They became such a staple that on our last night in Paris, we grabbed the Poulet Rôti flavor again, as well as a bottle of wine, and sat along the Canal Saint-Martin, enjoying the unapologetically French snack just as much as our canal view .
You’ll learn about the local culture of a destination in an authentic way.
As we meandered the aisles of the market that first day in Paris, I grabbed the chips without hesitation. However, I watched other shoppers (presumably Parisians) grab boxes of biscuits, glass bottles of juice, hunks of cheese, and fresh produce, imagining what dishes they’d be whipping up once they returned home to their chic Parisian apartments. (In this supermarket daydream, they’re always returning to chic Parisian apartments).
They were gathering supplies to make dinner, feed their kids, or prepare a dessert to bring to a party, just as I do back home. But getting to see, touch, and smell their local ingredients offers a glimpse into the lives of locals in a way you can’t experience just by walking the streets or visiting museums.
I asked a few friends if they shared a similar fascination with visiting grocery stores when they travel, and surprisingly, I was met with much agreement. One friend mentioned developing a fondness for Jaffa Cakes and Hob Nobs while living in London, and these snacks are deeply tied to her memories of her time there. Another even went as far as to say that growing up, her mother took her to local grocery stores “literally everywhere we traveled.”
You’ll have a reason to return (and a mission when you get home).
Naturally, it didn’t take long for me to look up if I could buy Lay’s Poulet Rôti chips back in New York. At first, I had no luck. I saw Reddit threads and Tweets of snack food admiration and more online discourse than you’d expect a simple potato chip could garner. And while they are possible to order online from a third-party seller, you’d likely be gambling your sanity (and food safety) to do so.
That said, some brands like SnackCrate offer international snack subscription boxes, making foreign treats more accessible, both to travelers looking to relive their favorite trips and those looking for a taste of home if they’ve moved far away. But perhaps the elusiveness of these discovered-while-traveling snacks is part of their allure — you must enjoy them while you can, with the hope that someday you’ll return and enjoy their salty, vaguely chicken-y goodness all over again.
While a grocery or convenience store might not be the first stop on your next trip, I’d suggest squeezing one in between those sightseeing tours, museums, and Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll get a glimpse into life in a different place, whether that’s across the country or the world, and gain an appreciation for the delicacies and ingredients that you wouldn’t be able to find at home. You might even find your new favorite flavor of potato chips.