North Carolina’s sweet potato industry plans to focus its marketing efforts on the foodservice sector.
As baked sweet potatoes are now common items in steakhouses, the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission is working to introduce sweet potatoes into fast-casual and quick-service operations.
The Benson-based organization is studying the logistical challenges foodservice operators face in featuring sweet potatoes on their menus, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director.
A study the group commissioned last year showed the largest percentage of consumers prefer to eat sweet potatoes baked but not necessarily whole-baked, Johnson-Langdon said.
Many prefer baked or roasted chunks tossed in olive oil or prepared in other baked ways, she said.
Knowing baked is the consumer preference should help the commission better approach marketing to the correct target, Johnson-Langdon said.
“What the study shows us is where the sweet potato is on U.S. restaurant menus. (We) are in what is known as early stages of proliferation,” she said.
Sweet potatoes are now moving from the kitchens of independent operators into the large chain menus, she said.
“The growth there is in fries, but the other thing is that most diners prefer baked and would order more if they’re offered in different ways. It’s a key point we plan to be talking about with our operators.”
Part of the problem with foodservice is that many casual dining or quick-service operators don’t prepare food in the back kitchens while others do, Johnson-Langdon said.
Sweet potatoes must accommodate the equipment in the kitchens’ configurations, she said.
Johnson-Langdon said the goal of introducing more sweet potatoes into foodservice outlets is lofty and one that will require much time and effort.
To help promote sweet potato consumption throughout the year, the commission this spring plans to introduce a program called “52 Ways To Love Sweet Potatoes.”
The program will include print and online material and recipes to help shoppers find interesting ways to incorporate sweet potatoes in their home dining, Johnson-Langdon said.
While the commission has invested in retail point-of-sale material, because of budget concerns, it may not fund such programs this year, Johnson-Langdon said.
As the foodservice survey showed consumer describe sweet potatoes as “flavorful, tasty, good and healthy and nutritious,” the commission continues to promote the health attributes of sweet potatoes.
The commission promotes the vegetable’s nutritional benefits through a series of messages such as “sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, an excellent source of vitamin A, provide antioxidants and are rich in potassium,” and “a medium sweet potato has 103 calories.”
It’s also spreading the word about sweet potatoes through social media, which includes its Facebook page, facebook.com/ncsweetpotatoes, Twitter, twitter.com/sweet_taters, and Pinterest.com/ncsweetpotatoes venues.
The commission promotes its product through a $15 per acre grower assessment that typically generates $800,000 in annualfunding, Johnson-Langdon said.
This year’s budget is expected to be similar to last year’s, she said.
Grower-shippers say promotions are effective.
“They’re doing an excellent job and it shows in the fact that sales have increased over the last couple of years,” said Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.
“The North Carolina sweet potato industry as a whole leans on the commission to do a majority of the marketing.”
Brenda Oglesby, sales manager for Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C., said promotion efforts are reaping dividends.
“The commission is going for the quick-service restaurants and trying to promote them throughout the U.S. and overseas,” she said.
“Sweet potatoes are catching on everywhere because of the health benefits. When we first started going overseas, we would see them occasionally in stores. The last time we were there this summer, they were in every store we visited and in the outdoor markets in France. We would see them everywhere.”