SPRING HOPE, N.C. — Foodservice interest is helping stoke demand for sweet potatoes.

North Carolina grower-shippers say the buying segment offers high potential.

Charlotte Vick-Ferrell, a partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, said foodservice operators are doing better adding sweet potato items to their menus.

Vick-Ferrell said increasing interest in health is helping drive consumer interest.

Despite the good news, the restaurant industry is seeing some challenges, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn.

The foodservice industry has seen fewer new restaurant concepts adding sweet potatoes to their menus, which has slowed foodservice use, Wooten said.

Still, some concepts are adding sweet potatoes, he said.

Wooten said Wayne E. Bailey was one of four shippers that recently worked with Wendy’s in providing a baked sweet potato through a yearlong national test.

He said Wayne E. Bailey began supplying Cracker Barrel in September.

“Hopefully, more and more restaurant operators will add them, and they’ll become more of a mainstream item,” Wooten said. “People are looking for them now rather than being surprised when someone offers them a sweet potato. They’re disappointed if they can’t find them. There’s more disappointment than surprise if they’re not there, so that’s good.”

Wooten said Wayne E. Bailey entered foodservice sales in the late 1980s when it installed electronic sizing equipment to supply restaurants with the proper sizings.

He said foodservice sales represent his company’s biggest sales growth during the last decade.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, said he expects to see a report soon on Wendy’s baked sweet potato trial. The chain plans to also offer sweet potato fries, he said.

Following steakhouse adoption, Precythe said it’s only a matter of time before sweet potatoes become common offerings in the quick-service segment.

In his business travels, Precythe said he and sales manager Brenda Oglesby dine at many restaurants.

“We see many different things the chefs can prepare in so many different ways,” Precythe said. “We eat out at a lot of the nice restaurants when we call on our customers to see what the food is like.

“Just about every four- to five-star restaurant we dine in the chef has sweet potatoes on the menu in some fashion. It’s unbelievable, what they’re doing these days.”

Daniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc., said restaurant use helps increase supermarket sales.

“Overall, foodservice use is increasing every year,” Bissett said. “Restaurants can pop a sweet potato in the oven just as easily as a white potato.

“What we have seen is when people go to restaurants they may try the sweet potato they may not normally cook at home. Sales become bigger because people are trying them in the restaurants. Restaurant offerings definitely steers more business toward the chain stores.”