Sweet potatoes are still a trendy recipe item in many foodservice establishments, with fries and baked potatoes as popular menu items.
“It all started when we were introduced into the steakhouses,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.
Now, Precythe says just about every type of restaurant can, and does, offer some sort of sweet potato dish, at least during some parts of the year.
“Foodservice seems to be increasing with more and more places preparing Sweet potatoes,” said Trey Boyette, sales, SMP Southeast, Vardaman, Miss.
George Wooten Jr., owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., said foodservice business has grown partially as a result of shippers’ abilities to meet specific demands, whether it’s a fresh cut product like cubed or diced sweet potatoes or simply a specific size.
“The ability we have to meet consumer demands for specific size profiles or products has helped us service different operations from schools and hospitals to white table cloth establishments, buffets and mom and pop restaurants,” Wooten said.
“That value of consistency is really expanding the market over time,” he said.
In addition to strong fresh markets, processed sweet potatoes are seeing a lot of growth, according to grower-shippers.
“The processed market demand is growing each year. Consumers are purchasing more products like fries and chips each year,” said Shanan Cox, director of national accounts, Market Fresh Produce, LLC, Nixa, Mo.
“I think processing is seeing an even steeper trend than the fresh market,” said Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, agrees demand for processed sweet potatoes is on the rise, specifically as an ingredient in pet food, and for products using dehydrated sweet potatoes.
“By early 2015, there will be three dehydrating plants in North Carolina that will be purchasing from our growers and shippers. The healthy aspects of the sweet potato have caused it to become an ingredient in beverages and other packaged foods,” Johnson-Langdon said
Graves doesn’t believe the increased interest in processed sweet potatoes is hurting retail demand for fresh product.
“The processing market is adding to, not taking away from, the fresh market,” he said.
However, there are some impacts.
“Increase in demand for processed does have some effect on price of fresh supplies. The industry has been able to handle the increased demand fairly well so far,” Cox said.
Supplying the processed market has provided opportunities to expand production and use more product.
“New varieties have been planted in some areas to be grown specifically for processing,” Cox said.
Traditional varieties can also be used, as a result of grading that occurs during quality sorting.
“When the No. 1 product is graded out, it always creates No. 2 product as a byproduct of the grading process. These usually go to processors or customers that require a less expensive sweet potato,” Cox said.