“I think there are still opportunities,” he said.
He described it as slower and steadier growth than before.
“Restaurants see the value of putting them on the plate, and they can make money on them,” Joyner said.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield, N.C.-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, said sweet potatoes are only now entering a “proliferation phase” in the restaurant sector.
“Much of the penetration growth has been led by fries, but fresh preparations baked and mashed are showing great growth, particularly in casual dining,” he said.
Push to grow them cheaper
There’s also a downside to dealing with foodservice, said Duane Hutton, manager of Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., Livingston, Calif.
“First of all, the restaurants are looking for fixed size per serving, so they’re looking for relatively narrow range,” he said.
Hutton said less than 1% of Yagi Bros.’ sales goes to foodservice.
Restaurant profits don’t necessarily translate to the grower-shipper’s bottom line, said Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms Inc., Kinston, N.C.
“That side of the business (processing) has been a tremendous help, but their philosophy is to have us grow them cheaper,” Hill said.
He said restaurants often upcharge on sweet potato items.
“I’ve been in restaurants that charge a $1.29 upcharge over a white potato fry. It’s everywhere you go,” he said.
He said he saw a baked sweet potato priced at $5.95 in one steakhouse chain.
“And the farmer is getting 30 cents for the potatoes on 60 in a box and $18 a carton,” he said. “This stuff is all out of kilter, and growers in North Carolina are going broke.”
Driving consumer demand
Any sales to foodservice will spill over into other areas, said Sarah Alvernaz, general manager of Atwater, Calif.-based California Sweet Potato Growers.
“While that’s been a great pull for supply, from an industry perspective, it’s also been a big driver for an increase general consumer demand, because people think of sweet potatoes now in a different way than something that is served at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she said.