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.