Potato and onion marketing agents have encountered a few hurdles in the foodservice business in the last year or so, but they say they’re not overly concerned.

In fact, some marketing efforts are employing chefs to get more product onto consumers’ plates.

“We have a really strong foodservice program, where we bring leading chefs from the Culinary Institute to our chefs seminar,” said Tim O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board.

“We’ve seen 45 of the top restaurant chains participate, and 40% have added new items. We’ve seen a tremendous response from chefs to add new items on the menu.”

The recession has cut into sales volume to restaurants, however, O’Connor said, adding that volume had dropped about 3% over that time.

John Vlahandreas, national onion sales director for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based potato and onion shipper Wada Farms Marketing Group, said he has seen a downward trend in foodservice sales during the economic downturn.

“You’ve seen a decline in it, but you’re still moving the same amounts to the same people,” he said. “You may be off a week or two, but you’re starting to see the onions bounce back. The middle of our storage deal, it got really slow and people that were pulling, let’s say, three loads a week, were pulling one. You’re seeing that pop back up.”

Certain traditional venues have been affected more than others, said Kevin Stanger, vice president of sales and marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group.

“I’d say in general the big steakhouse baker has been affected,” he said. “While the economy has made an uptick, it’s going to take some time to come back.”

Whether specialty varieties have been hurt is a matter of debate, Stanger said.

“The problem with varietal deals is it’s not like there was a ton of them grown anyway,” he said. “I don’t know if there has been a big change in that aspect. I know there are some other marketers in the state that may have a better idea than I may.”

Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission, said foodservice sales were noticeably down.

“Business is down, and especially hard hit are the casual dining and steak chains, which are very key to a comeback,” he said.

But not all the news is bad, he added.

“A bright spot for us has been No. 2 potatoes that are used for french fries,” Odiorne said.

“One of the major chains that has grown dramatically, from eight locations in 2001 to 460 now, is the Five Guys (Burgers and Fries) chain. They specialize in freshly made hamburgers and french fries. A number of the other chains that do fresh-cut fries continue to do pretty well as people get more selective as they go out and look for something that seems genuine or a real signature item. They seem to be surviving this downturn very well.”

Meanwhile, Odiorne said, the commission is emphasizing a value-variety-versatility concept in its foodservice marketing plan.

“All three of those topics are what we’re concentrating on with our chefs’ efforts in working with chain operators,” he said. “The value, of course, is that potatoes are often something that can be menued at a cost of 20 to 50 cents for a potato, spanning the range from what would be served in a noncommercial operation all the way up to a 1-pound potato in a steak place.”

That value is extremely important to operators,” Odiorne said.

“They’re doing menu re-engineering to build in profitability and hit certain price points and so on,” he said. “So we think we’ve got a real good message with Idaho potatoes to get out to operators on value.”

Chefs are key allies in promoting potatoes, Odiorne said.

“Chefs pride themselves on their own creativity,” he said. “We learned a long time ago that when we developed a recipe booklet, it’s really just a starting point for chefs. For example, if chefs see something made with crab or shrimp and they can’t afford that on their menu, they’ll alter the recipe to do something less expensive. Or they’ll upscale it.”

Chefs also are regionalizing menus, with potatoes as key ingredients in those efforts, Odiorne noted.

“A chef from Florida, Norman van Aken, from Norman’s, is credited as one of the first chefs to have regional south Florida cuisine, where he did sort of a new world cuisine,” he said.

“He used Florida and the Caribbean — called it Floribbean — he developed a recipe using our russets but also our new varieties of purple Peruvians, a red potato with a yellow flesh, and came up with a side dish or entree. The particular recipe we’re featuring is an entree with scallops. There are circles of the potatoes made from the reds.”