Restaurant downturn affected sweet potatoes, marketing agents say

03/08/2011 12:19:01 PM
Jim Offner

Sweet potato sales in the foodservice sector took a hit from the recession, just as other items did, marketing agents say.

But they also said it could have been worse.

“They dropped a little, and they’ve been sort of sluggish in that area,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

“They have not rebounded, as well. We see people make different choices for eating out. Even the casual dining restaurants experienced a downturn after 2008. They’ve been struggling.”

There are signs of a rally, she added.

“It’s not exponential, but they are coming back,” she said.

“And with the advent of the sweet potato fries, that will make some difference. Rather than buying fresh market, because the reports that I get reflect fresh-market shipments.”

Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said foodservice sales have been steady.

“I’ve seen some good movement in some areas of the foodservice business,” Graves said.

“I won’t say everybody or everything has been great, because it has not been. But it’s starting to pick up. It’s an important part of what we sell.”

Some distributors say their product has eluded the worst effects of the recession.

“Sweet potato sales have really not been hurt in the recession,” said George Wooten, owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“I think that’s because we’re cannibalizing some of the white potato sales. All these attributes that sweet potatoes offer, I think we’ve gotten some conversions from the white potato to the sweet potato.”

Much of the company’s business is in foodservice, and it has not seen a downturn there, Wooten said.

“We’re beginning to see some increase in our foodservice business,” he said.

Wooten’s company also handles foodservice sales for Tull Hill Farms Inc. in Kinston, N.C.

“It must be fairly good, because he goes through a lot of potatoes,” said Kendall Hill, Tull Hill co-owner.

However, Thomas Joyner, president of Nash Produce, Nashville, N.C., said he did notice a downturn in sales to the restaurant sector during the recession.

“It did have an effect on the restaurants,” he said.

“They dropped off a little bit, but they have come back a bit in the past six months. They’re not where they were prior to 2008, though.”

Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms, said foodservice sales have been steady.

“We don’t see any difference,” he said.

“We sell basics. We don’t sell very high-end stuff. People are still going out to eat.”


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