When maltodextrin, sugar, and dried onion are ground into a powder, it produces the flavor of Lay’s potato chip known as Italian red meat. Don’t expect meatballs like Nonna used to make: The pale, greasy chips taste more like the tomato sauce at a dollar slice shop — if it had the consistency of protein powder and was watered down with Sweet Baby Ray’s. It’s one of the dozens of snacks manufactured by Frito-Lay for sale in other countries.
At one point, chips that taste like Italian red meat, Canadian poutine, and Sichuan hot pot were rare in New York, the domain of Asian grocers like H Mart that cater to growing immigrant populations in the city. Now, they’re everywhere.
Bodegas sell them to make extra cash and snack shops import them from abroad to appeal to a growing fanbase: They’ll pay as much as $10 for a tin of peri-peri Pringles. Somewhere along the way, the best place in town to find international snacks changed. It’s now the illegal weed shops that have sprung up in every corner of New York City.
You know the ones. They sell medicinal gummies and bongs shaped like Baby Yoda. Some of them look professional, but most are decorated with hand-painted murals of red-eyed cartoon characters. On top of selling weed, they run one of the most elaborate fronts in town: wide aisles of snacks imported from China, Thailand, Yemen, and beyond.
At West Village Exotics on West Fourth Street, customers ring a doorbell to enter a small, second-floor shop that sells cannabis products without a license. It has potato chips that taste like Japanese sweet potato and canned beverages with characters from the animated Japanese series Dragon Ball Z.
The selection is wider at Foreign Exotics a few blocks away. (“Exotic” is a common shorthand for snacks imported from other countries; it can also be used to refer to expensive strains of weed.) One wall of the smoke shop is lined with steak-flavored Lay’s, white peach Fanta, and other international munchies. Across from it, a hand-written menu lists the prices of various strains of weed.
To report taxable income, the shops sell a range of products that aren’t weed. Imported snacks are a common choice due to their high price tag and many fans.
Policing the storefronts has been an uphill battle. When New York legalized the sale of recreational cannabis, illegal cannabis shops fell through the cracks. The Office of Cannabis Management, a state agency, was put in charge of policing legal dispensaries. Those that broke the law were left to understaffed local agencies like the Sheriff’s Office, which employs around 150 officers in a city of 8 million people.
They couldn’t keep up. “It is impossible to tell [if they sell cannabis] unless you go from shop to shop,” says Paula Collins, an attorney who represents unlicensed cannabis shops in the city.
In many cases, the owners of the smoke shops already ran convenience stores and tobacco shops in the city, Collins says. It’s part of the reason they were able to open so quickly: They repurposed their businesses or opened new ones after the state legalized recreational marijuana and operate with the hope of obtaining a legal license to sell cannabis down the line.
For those who buy and sell imported snacks, the chips are more than fried potatoes that taste like sour fish soup and hard-shell tacos. Joshua Dat, the owner of Datz Deli in Queens, calls them a status symbol: a Gucci handbag for inflation times. (His shop doesn’t sell marijuana.)
“It’s all hype,” Dat says. “I’m eating these exotic chips, and you’re eating an old bag of Cheetos. Keep up.” He purchases the snacks from wholesale stores in Brooklyn and New Jersey for around $2 each and resells them for about $6. He estimates he makes over $5,000 a week selling snacks from other countries.
Beyond the numbers, selling imported snacks has become a way for cannabis shops to conceal their identities online. RTV Exotics, a smoke shop with a mural of a bear smoking a blunt on its wall, is considered a “snack bar” on Google. So is West Village Exotics. Foreign Exotics is listed as a “convenience store” online.
The front isn’t fooling Gale Brewer. The City Councilmember has been on the frontlines of the city’s fight against illegal weed shops in New York City. “We know all of the ones in our neighborhood,” she said earlier this month. “We have 63.”
Her constituents on the Upper West Side have raised concerns about the shops targeting minors with snacks and advertisements that feature characters from video games and animated shows. “They don’t want them,” Brewer says. “Anybody who has kids in particular.”
In recent months, elected officials have escalated the war on illegal pot. Mayor Eric Adams has threatened to raid their premises and penalize their landlords. In the spring, Gov. Kathy Hochul passed a law that allows the Office of Cannabis Management, a state agency, to fine businesses up to $10,000 a day for selling weed without a license.
Is any of it enough to stop the hustle? According to Collins, the illegal weed market is still piping hot. Some of the city’s unregulated smoke shops are taking home as much as $2,000 to $3,000 dollars a day in profit: That’s before the snacks.