Restaurants and the U.S. government are growing their share of the sweet potato industry’s business portfolio, according to the newest statistics.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased a record of more than 26 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2013, the U.S. Sweet Potato Council reported in its Winter 2014 newsletter. That’s a 109% increase over the approximately 12.7 million pounds USDA bought from the industry in 2012.
It’s more than a one-time increase, the numbers indicate. Indeed, fresh bulk purchases increased from about 1.3 million pounds — about 32 truckloads — in 2008 to roughly 20 million pounds — 501 truckloads — in 2013, the council reported. The 2013 purchases were worth $8.3 million, the council noted.
Growers and shippers say they see it as just the expansion of a phenomenon — sweet potato fries — that took hold in restaurants more than a decade ago and continues to morph into other formats today.
“Sweet potato french fries have been wonderful for sales, and now you’re seeing sweet potatoes used in other ways,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based grower-shipper Burch Farms.
Sweet potato fries emerged as an alternative on restaurant menus, and their health-conscious halo has endured, Burch said.
Benny Graves, executive secretary with the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said sweet potatoes already have graduated from the “phenomenon” stage on the institutional and restaurant side of the business.
“There’s various health trends going on and, in general, America and its chefs are paying attention to portion size and getting more vegetables on the plate,” he said.
That trend is bound to continue, and sweet potatoes stand to benefit, Graves said.
“I imagine you’ll see meat portions go down and you’re seeing more vegetables. Sweet potatoes fit in on that — the color and use of them and how they can be used in different ways,” he said.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, said more sweet potatoes are diverted into foodservice channels each year.
“It’s really what we refer to as good solid growth,” she said.
There’s room for still more growth, said George Wooten, owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.
“At steakhouses, baked potatoes vs. baked sweet potatoes, you’re 50/50, where before it was 20% to 25%, but it’s still growing and we’re getting good response,” he said.
Thomas Joyner, president of Nash Produce in Nashville, N.C. said it’s “almost rare” not to see sweet potatoes offered at upscale restaurants.
“The baked sweet potato has been offered for a few years and continues to grow,” he said.
Sweet potato fries appeared on many steakhouse menus with suddenness about 10 years ago, and the product’s presence on menus has not shown any signs of slowing, said Duane Hutton, manager of Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., Livingston, Calif.
“After that burst, it’s been steady,” Hutton said.
Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., said sweet potato sales are continuing to spike for baked and fries.
The steakhouses are pretty much covered now, Precythe said. Now, sweet potatoes are finding their ways into new formats.
“I try to eat out and it’s just unbelievable the seafood restaurants offering sweet potatoes,” he said. “You cannot hardly go into a restaurant that they do not mention sweet potatoes.”