The foodservice segment remains a gold mine for sweet potato marketers.
More restaurants and types of restaurants and dining venues continue to add the vegetable to their menus.
“We’ve kind of ridden a wave that started in the mid-2000s that has continued in prominence,” said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, N.C.
“Most any steakhouse and any restaurant of significance has them on the menu. The profitability per plate with sweet potatoes is increasing. The restaurants are taking a serious look at them.”
Joyner said restaurants find adding sweet potatoes is easy.
If the restaurant has baked potatoes, it’s not much more to add the sweet spuds, and it’s buoyed by the fact that sweet potatoes are part of the comfort food people are seeking, he said.
It was only in the past two decades that sweet potatoes began making headway into foodservice and growth shows little evidence of stopping, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.
“It’s just booming,” Precythe said. “We are seeing more chefs adding sweet potatoes to their menus. They love them and there are so many different ways to prepare them.”
Though it remains in its infancy, the fast-food segment is also embracing sweet potatoes.
Precythe said Wendy’s hasn’t returned the vegetable to its menu yet but said the chain is still deciding if it wants to offer sweet potato fries after a test.
He said the fast-food outlets are featuring baked sweet potatoes on an experimental basis.
“Sonic is doing sweet potato tots and Cracker Barrel now has them on the menu seven days a week when it use to be just one day a week,” Precythe said.
“I think it’s a matter of time before all of them follow suit, just like they did with the steakhouses. Once we got in with the steakhouses, they all added them.”
Precythe credits George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., for persuading Cracker Barrel to serve sweet potatoes. Precythe said it took Wooten years to land that account.
Wooten said sweet potatoes are the perfect item for a restaurant such as Cracker Barrel, which promotes home cooking.
He said the addition to that chain’s menu should make other restaurants take note.
In the fast-food arena, Wooten said Wendy’s ran a test over a year ago. He said though Burger King experienced great success, its fries aren’t permanently on the menu yet.
Wooten said Burger King would likely be the first quick-service chain to offer the fries on a regular basis.
“Sweet potatoes haven’t impacted the restaurant circuit 100% yet, but demand is increasing,” he said.
“People are still picking them up and you are seeing the different concepts adding baked product to their menus. We will see more and more of that.”
The sweet potato industry’s ability to meet quick-service customer requirements helps send more product into the fast-food segment, said Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“They need to get a uniform-sized sweet potato so every one of their customers receives the same sized potato on the plate,” Scramlin said.
“Every one of their chefs can just fill a tray and stick it in the oven and bake them all at the same time. The better capabilities of the packers and shippers being able to offer a unified pack has really helped drive that growth.”
Wada ships about 35% of its sweet potatoes to foodservice.
Consumer demand is driving sweet potato gains in restaurant menus, said Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.
“There are not many restaurants you go into that are not offering them on the menu,” Vick said.
“From what a lot of the foodservice companies are telling me, the customer is asking for sweet potatoes. They’re being very creative in how the chefs are preparing them.”