The sweet potato industry rejoiced about a decade ago when steakhouses began to feature baked or fried sweet potatoes on their everyday menus.
As it turned out, that was just the beginning of a big new revenue stream for sweet potato suppliers.
The number of casual restaurants using their product increased. Processors got involved and started to churn out sweet potato fries for retailers and the quick-service restaurant sectors. Chains like Carl’s Jr. and Burger King began to offer sweet potato fries.
In the spring of 2012, Wendy’s restaurants offered a baked sweet potato for about six weeks.
“I think you could say it went well overall,” said Kitty Munger, spokeswoman with the Columbus, Ohio-based Wendy’s International Inc. “We like being able to leverage the baked potato equity for the sweet potato.”
Munger declined to disclose the volume of sweet potatoes the chain used in the promotion. She also said she was not certain whether Wendy’s will offer them again.
The product had a suggested retail price of $2.49.
Sweet potato sales growth in the fast-food sector could mimic the upward trajectory they enjoyed in steakhouses, sources say.
Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce supplied the Wendy’s trial, and it “worked out well,” said Thomas Joyner, president.
“It was a little bit shorter than we would have hoped, and we are anticipating that they’ll start again, although I’m not sure when,” he said.
The company devoted “a tremendous amount” of its sweet potato volume to Wendy’s, but it still was a worthwhile investment, Joyner said.
“The consumer really enjoyed the (quick-service restaurant)serving sweet potatoes, and the industry benefited. It increases demand,” he said.
The growth in foodservice sales can be found in a sampling of numbers, said Charles Walker, executive secretary of the Columbia, S.C.-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council.
Walker said sweet potato suppliers in North Carolina shipped 26 truckloads to foodservice customers Feb. 14-16. By comparison, the same shippers sent 71 loads to retail customers and 22 to export markets.
“The shippers tell me they’re very happy with the sale to foodservice. They think it’s going very well,” Walker said.
Nash Produce’s Joyner said the foodservice side of the business is not growing as quickly as it was, perhaps, two years ago. But it is still growing, he said.
“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.