SPRING HOPE, N.C. — Though an overwhelming majority of North Carolina sweet potatoes find their way to supermarkets and restaurant tables, the processed market is showing increasing demand.

Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, said processing demand keeps increasing.

He said there is a lot of opportunity to increase processing demand.

Joyner points to Burger King adding sweet potato fries to its menus and noted how the Sonic Drive-Ins are adding sweet potato Tater Tots.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for sweet potatoes to gain footing and really do well.,” Joyner said. “Retail stores have end caps of waffle fries and hash browns. Five years ago, you couldn’t find a bag of (frozen) sweet potatoes. It’s set to itself and is the new potato. Everything they’ve done with russets, they’re doing with sweet potatoes. It’s added an entirely different facet to the industry.”

Joyner said processing demand constitutes about 12% of Nash’s sales.

Grower-shippers say the explosion of value-added fresh-cut product along with frozen cubes, mesh and other processed products help boost fresh sales.

“The fresh is growing really big because the frozen sweet potato french fry has been a big category in the U.S.,” said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn. “Processing helps grow fresh. A lot of these processors have a lot of money. They have been advertising in magazines. Any time you use the word sweet potato, it helps all categories.”

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, said some giant food processors supply McDonald’s and other quick-service outlets with french fried sweet potatoes and other products.

“It used to be mostly baby food,” Precythe said. “Now, all segments of the processed industry are interested. I don’t know any segment of the processed industry that’s not looking at them or getting into them.”

Burch Farms, Faison, is seeing an increasing pull from processed market buyers.

“We have already had our meetings with people this year, booking poundings,” Jimmy Burch Jr., salesman, said in late August. “They’re all saying they may need more this year than last year. They’re being very aggressive going after new customers and expanding the deal.”

Processing demand constitutes 35% to 40% of Burch’s sales and represents a growing segment, he said.

Burch said processing demand likely increased by up to 500% after frozen sweet potato french fries hit the market and began entering fast-food chains in 2010.