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Lay’s chip contest could win student $1 million prize

Lay’s chip contest could win student $1 million prize

The three finalists in the Lay's "Do Us A Flavor" contest, Christina Abu-Judom, left, Tyler Raineri, center, and Karen Weber-Mendham, right, at the New York Stock Exchange on February 12. (Courtesy photo)

Junior Tyler Raineri got that phone call we all dream about getting.

It was last semester, as he sat in his bedroom waiting to go to class. A number he didn’t recognize popped up on his phone. When he picked up, the person on the other end told him he was going to win $50,000. Better yet, he was one of three finalists for a $1 million grand prize. And it wasn’t a scam.

Flash-forward to today, and Raineri is fresh off trips to New York and Los Angeles, hanging out with actress Eva Longoria and celebrity chef Michael Symon and appearing on Good Morning America. He’s one of three finalists in the Lay’s potato chips “Do Us A Flavor” contest, a national competition he entered on a whim last fall.

Tyler holds bag of chips

Junior Tyler Raineri holds a bag of his Lay’s Sriracha chips in a promotional photo.

As with anyone who enters a contest on Facebook, he never thought he’d be a finalist—or win.

“It was surreal. I’ve never felt like that before,” the Lake Zurich native says about that phone call. “If I were to win this, I would have a lot of new doors open to me.”

Raineri, a construction management major with a minor in business administration, submitted his idea to Lay’s for a Sriracha chip. Sriracha is an extremely hot Thai sauce, one his family uses to dip “just about everything.” His grandmother also served up homemade chips seasoned with the Sriracha sauce.

Now, Lay’s Sriracha chips are being sold at stores in Bloomington-Normal and across the country, along with the two other finalists, until May 4. Until then, consumers can vote each day for their favorite finalist flavor on the Lay’s Facebook Page, via Twitter using the hashtag #SaveSriracha, or via text message by texting “VOTE” to 24477 (CHIPS). The winning flavor will be revealed this May and will remain on store shelves.

Raineri beat out 3.8 million other entries. The tie-breaker for entries was the recipe’s inspiration or back story, and his family’s unique history with Sriracha likely put him over the edge.

“With 3.8 million entrants, there are only so many flavors,” Raineri told STATEside.

It’s been a whirlwind for Raineri ever since that winning phone call just after Thanksgiving break. He was whisked away to the Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas, to meet the culinary experts and see the “research and development kitchen,” when the consumer-quality Sriracha chip was fine-tuned.

“You create the inspiration or the idea, but it’s Frito-Lay culinary team that actually develops the chip,” Raineri said. “It got dulled down a little bit. The actual sauce is extremely hot.”

He was flown to LA to film a TV spot. Last week, Raineri and the other two finalists joined contest judges Longoria and Symon and Frito-Lay and PepsiCo executives at the New York Stock Exchange, where they rang the opening bell and introduced their flavors. Raineri even got to take his father with him to New York, when they squeezed in the Good Morning America visit.

The public relations blitz allowed Raineri to break his Lay’s-imposed silence about the contest. His Delta Chi Fraternity brothers didn’t even know he was a finalist until Good Morning America.

“They’re obviously ecstatic, really excited,” Raineri said. “They’ve been a great help.”

But he needs more help. The “Do Us A Flavor” winner gets $1 million or 1 percent of their flavor’s 2013 net sales (whichever is higher), but that winner is determined through the online voting.

What would he do with all that money? He tries not to think about that too much, but he knows he’d give some of it to the Jimmy V Foundation, the focus of Delta Chi’s philanthropic efforts, and invest most of the rest.

After graduation, he’s thinking about getting his master’s degree, and the whole Lay’s contest experience has him considering a possible career in marketing, expanding on his business administration minor.

“This whole experience has been an unbelievable opportunity,” Raineri said. “But I’m going to try and create more opportunities from this.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at