(March 24, 2:45 p.m.) Three words can sum up the increasing popularity of sweet potatoes in the foodservice industry: sweet potato fries.

They’re stars on restaurant menus across the country, and some fine dining establishments are pursuing different fresh-cut angles and could lead the public toward other fresh-cut yams.

“More and more restaurants are serving sweet potato fries as either an appetizer or side dish,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Council, Smithfield. “Also, people are doing sweet potato chunks as part of their food prep. Some are fresh-cut, but not a lot.”

Foodservice business is down during the economic recession the U.S. has endured the last year, especially in the more upscale sectors, but many sources said sweet potatoes haven’t been hit as hard as other sectors in the industry.

“Foodservice have dropped a little bit, but not with sweet potatoes,” said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Starkville. “Fries had a lot to do with that.

“The fresh market is as good as ever. It’s a comfort food, and shoppers are going back to the basics. Sweet potato fries and the whole superfoods thing have really helped the industry. Sweet potato baked is so good for you.”

“I think foodservice, the restaurant industry, is down, so sweet potatoes could be down in foodservice. But I think, because of the message of health, we are seeing more people eating sweet potatoes as opposed to white potatoes. The health message is picking up. It’s being recognized more as a complex carbohydrate, not a simple carbohydrate, so it helps, for instance, diabetics in controlling sugar intake,” said George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

Because of the slumping economy, those in the sweet potato and foodservice industries have had to be more creative with their fresh-cut presentations and promotions, Wooten said.

“We’ve talked about how convenient fresh-cut is, in putting them into casseroles and things like that,” he said. “I think products that have been good for us are cubes and sticks. We recently started with a medallion cut that’s shaped like a coin. It’s good for spring, summer and fall.

“And then, we have a slab cut, which is a horizontal cut. It’s 5/8 inches thick and just wonderful for grilling — 7-8 minutes on a George Foreman grill, or about 15-20 minutes on a regular grill. On the regular grill, the grilling carmelizes the sugars and really brings out the flavors.”