The recession didn’t hurt foodservice sales of potatoes as much as it could have, according to some sources.

“We expected the recession to result in a decline in foodservice sales, but we didn’t see near the reduction we expected to see,” said Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans’ Inc., Rosholt, Wis.

However, Carter said whatever the state of the economy, there will be room for expansion in the future.

“There is no question, consumers continue to eat out despite the fact that economic times aren’t as strong as we’d like them to be,” he said. “We’re certain that segment will continue to grow over time.”

Still, the effects of the recession were felt to some degree at least.

“The restaurant trade is still down from the recession,” said Ralph Schwartz, directory of category management at Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Other companies agree that the foodservice business is still down but say they have noticed a comeback.

“We have seen a 10% increase in our foodservice business over last year,” said Tracy Fowler, general manager for potatoes and onions at Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M. “It seems that restaurants are making a rebound.”

To help encourage that comeback, L&M has been working on some aggressive undisclosed promotional programs with foodservice companies.

“We are seeing a ‘bounce’ back in foodservice orders,” Fowler said in an e-mail.

“This bounce can be credited to three private companies working together to be aggressive to help the restaurant business,” he said.

Other companies and organizations are also working on foodservice promotions.

“We’re working on a unique foodservice and wholesale promotion that hasn’t been launched yet,” said Greg Donald, general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, Charlottetown.

Donald said he thinks there is still a lot of room for expansion in the foodservice arena.

“We value that segment, but it’s an area we think there are more opportunities,” he said.

“With restaurants, there is still room for growth,” said Tim O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Potato Board, Denver.

To help increase demand from foodservice, the board sponsored its eighth Culinary Institute of America seminar. This year’s theme was The New American Menu: Global Flavors, Healthy Appeal.

The event is designed to inspire chefs for restaurants and retail chains with innovative potato recipes.

This year’s attendees included chefs from Wendy’s, Shoney’s, Sizzler and Whole Foods, according to a news release.

“It’s more art than science,” O’Connor said. “We get chefs inspired and then let them play in the kitchen. They come up with dozens and dozens of dishes.”

Other options

Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission, said potatoes can actually help restaurants recover from the recession.

“There’s a good opportunity for fresh produce to fill more of the plate,” Odiorne said, referencing the higher costs of protein.

Odiorne said instead of using large cuts of meat, restaurants can reduce the size of the protein and use a larger potato.

“We’re encouraging chefs to increase the side of the plate that’s devoted to produce,” he said.

He mentioned one restaurant that added a lobster-topped baked potato to the menu as a way of offering a premium item while keeping the price economical.

So far, restaurants seem open to the idea of switching up their plates in this way.

“It’s being received pretty well,” he said.

It isn’t just large russet potatoes being used in foodservice. Other varieties are gaining in popularity, too.

“A lot of reds are used in restaurants,” said Paul Dolan, general manager of Associated Potato Growers, Grand Forks, N.D.

Specialty varieties are also becoming more popular with chefs.