Foodservice sales have proved to be a big promotional push for selling sweet potatoes.

“Restaurants are a big driving force for the industry,” said Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms, Kinston, N.C.

Others agree.

“Foodservice has really helped the consumption of sweet potatoes, and it all started with the steakhouses offering a choice between a baked sweet potato and a baked white potato. Then that opened the flood gate,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.

Precythe said the chain Bojangles has had a recent effect.

Several growers also mentioned Cracker Barrel as a popular place to find sweet potatoes on the menu.

Cracker Barrel has several sweet potato offerings, including a casserole, fries, and a baked option.

Precythe says these restaurants have helped raise awareness about the healthy produce option.

“It exposes sweet potatoes to a lot more people,” he said.

George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Inc, Chadbourn, N.C., said the best section for suppliers to get into the foodservice arena is with a baked sweet potato program because they do not need special equipment.

Fresh-cut grows in popularity

However, fresh-cut foodservice use is also a significant portion of the sweet potato business.

“Fresh-cut sweet potatoes can be used in casseroles or even a fresh-cut sweet potato fry,” Wooten said.

Still, the frozen sweet potato fry is coming up as the current king of foodservice.

“It’s the fastest-growing segment of the foodservice industry,” he said.

Kim Matthews, co-owner of Wynne, Ark.-based Matthews Ridgeview Farms, said he thinks this growth is because fries grab consumers’ attention.

“If you put ‘fried’ on the end of anything, you get people’s attention,” Matthews said.

While Matthews says the baked option is good, the fries are the more surprising option.

“It catches them off guard and makes them go, ‘Oh, wow!’” she said.

Hill agrees.

“All sweet potato categories are increasing, but fries are really jumping up because they are relatively new, but baked (sweet) potatoes in restaurants are also growing all the time,” he said.

Jimmy Burch Sr., partner at Burch Farms Inc., Faison, N.C., says the popularity of sweet potato fries helped offset low prices last year.

“They just can’t get enough of those fries. It’s the only thing that kept last year from being a bust,” Burch said.

Restaurant boosts retail

All of these restaurant sales start to transition over to retail sales.

“Whenever a consumer tries sweet potatoes in restaurants, they tend to reproduce those ideas at home, which means it’s encouraging less seasonality in the fresh market,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield, N.C.-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

“It’s becoming a more mainstream item that’s used year-round instead of just at the holidays,” she said.

The commission has a long-term goal to expand the foodservice segment for fresh sweet potatoes.

“After seeing the operational success and consumer excitement around the baked sweet potato limited time offer at Wendy’s last year, efforts were refocused to position North Carolina as the optimum source,” Cristy-Lucie Alvarado, representative for the commission, said in an e-mail.

The commission also has sponsored research and other events to encourage the use of more fresh North Carolina product in restaurants, according to Alvarado.

“Currently, the commission is meeting with chain executives to show how fresh sweet potatoes can add traffic and profitability to their restaurants,” she said.