After back-to-back years of declining sales in 2008 and 2009, the National Restaurant Association predicts a third straight year of gains in 2012.
Specifically, the NRA said Feb. 1 that it expects the U.S. foodservice industry to produce $631.8 billion this year, a 3.5% increase from 2011.
The NRA’s monthly Restaurant Performance Index, which tracks the industry’s outlook, in December reached its highest level in six years at 102.2. It was the third time in four months that the index topped 100.
The Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, did its part by planning 500 promotions with foodservice distributors nationwide late last year.
Don Odiorne, the commission’s vice president of foodservice, said the volume of Idaho potato sales increased 12% in December.
Odiorne said the commission expects some of that increase to carry over into the first quarter of 2012.
“Part of the reason we do promotions isn’t just for the one-month bump,” he said.
“We tend to maintain business after that initial movement.”
The commission is promoting National Nutrition Month in March by informing foodservice operators about healthy ways to prepare potatoes. Odiorne said the commission also is promoting healthy recipes to schools.
March, Odiorne said, also is good time to promote potatoes because of St. Patrick’s Day and the increased prevalence of Irish dishes that include spuds, such as colcannon.
Meanwhile, Odiorne said chefs are branching out, using more varieties of potatoes.
“Fingerlings are more expensive than reds, yellows or russets,” he said.
“They started in fine dining and hotels, but now they have spread to where you see them in more operations. We see them in casual dining.”
Likewise, reds are no longer relegated to potato salad.
“Now we see them roasted,” he said.
Another trend, Odiorne said, is that hash and home fries are no longer just for breakfast. Rather than corned beef, more upscale proteins — such as lobster and crab — are being incorporated in those dishes.
That’s a lot of good news for potato grower-shippers, whose products are a staple across the various segments of restaurant dining from quick-service to white-tablecloth.
But some are concerned that the improved markets could be short-lived.
“The economy has gotten better,” said Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Rexburg, Idaho-based Wilcox Fresh.
“The wild card is if gasoline reaches $5 a gallon — as predicted (by some) — this summer, that will have an effect on foodservice.”
On Feb. 22, the national average price of gasoline was $3.58 a gallon, according to AAA.
“It’s going to go high,” Richter said.
“The question is how high. One you get to $5, it’s going to create tradeoffs for consumers.”