NORMAL — Three months ago, if you had asked Tyler Raineri if he would be on national TV, ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, get his name on a bag of potato chips and consider changing his major, the Illinois State University junior might have said you were crazy.
But that was before he became a finalist in the Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest.
Now, all that and more has happened to the construction management major from Lake Zurich who thinks “Sriracha” would be a great flavor for a potato chip.
Sriracha, he explained, is “like a Thai chili sauce” that he puts on all sorts of food — including the potato chips his grandmother used to make.
“It has a very unique flavor,” he said of the bright red sauce, which he described as more flavorful than other hot sauces. “It’s thicker and not oil-based like Tabasco sauce.”
It’s also hotter than Tabasco, he said, although it’s a bit toned down in the Lay’s version.
“The vast majority of people don’t like their food on fire,” Raineri said.
But at his Delta Chi fraternity house, Sriracha is popular. “We just eat it with anything,” Raineri said, even pasta.
For a limited time, you can buy Lay’s Sriracha-flavored potato chips along with the flavors of the other two finalists: Christina Abu-Judom’s chicken and waffles and Karen Weber-Mendham’s cheesy garlic bread.
Public voting will determine which flavor stays — and which person wins $1 million or 1 percent of their flavor’s 2013 net sales, whichever is higher. The runners-up will each receive $50,000.
The panel that selected the finalists included actress Eva Longoria, who is a cookbook author and restaurateur, and Michael Symon, a celebrity chef and restaurateur.
Ryan Trompeter thinks Sriracha has a good chance to win — and it’s not just because he is Raineri’s fraternity brother.
“The chicken and waffles just tastes like syrup and the cheesy garlic bread makes your breath stink, and nobody likes that,” Thompeter said.
After being chosen as a finalist from nearly 3.8 million entries, Raineri has been to the Frito-Lay headquarters and its test kitchens in Texas and met with executives from parent company PepsiCo in California. He recently joined Longoria, Symon and his fellow finalists to ring the bell to start the day’s trading on the stock exchange and appeared on “Good Morning, America” in New York.
That’s when his housemates finally learned of his good fortune after months of secrecy imposed by a contract signed with Lay’s.
“I told them that my dad was going to ring the stock exchange bell, and I would be behind him,” Raineri said, adding that it would be on the ABC morning show.
So, with his fraternity brothers gathered around the TV, Trompeter said, “We were all pretty surprised.”
Raineri said becoming a finalist “is opening a lot of doors” and “I’ve had a lot of good networking.”
He met the entire executive board at PepsiCo, including the chief executive officer, and various people handling the “Do Us a Flavor” promotion.
“They all said the same thing, ‘You’re going to switch to marketing,’ ” Raineri said.
If he wins the $1 million, Raineri plans to donate part of it to the V Foundation for Cancer Research and to Illinois Special Olympics.
“My cousin is a Special Olympics athlete, and it’s based here,” he said.
Raineri said he would invest the majority of the money and use it to pay his college costs. He hopes to go to graduate school, possibly to study marketing.