ABERDEEN, Idaho — Smaller sizing could affect foodservice sales for some grower-shippers, but others are bullish on category growth in 2014-15.
The wet, cool August that limited the size of some Idaho potatoes could make it harder to keep foodservice customers supplied, said Ryan Wahlen, sales manager of Pleasant Valley Potatoes Inc. Early in the new-crop deal Pleasant Valley had just one-third the normal amount of the size 40 and size 50 russets his foodservice customers like.
“It’s been tough,” Wahlen said. “Foodservice is a really big part of our business. Hopefully some of these later fields have better size.”
Wahlen said it was “yet to be determined” whether his foodservice customers would take smaller spuds instead of 40s and 50s.
Robert Tominaga, president of Heyburn, Idaho-based Southwind Farms, has seen demand for the fingerlings his company grows and other specialties rise dramatically in recent years.
A big part of that has to do with a spike in foodservice demand.
“Millennials, and even baby boomers, are looking for something new,” Tominaga said. “Foodservice, especially, is looking for more exciting things.”
Chefs and their customers like fingerlings and other specialties for cosmetic reasons, too — not just because they taste good.
“You’re not going to find anything prettier than multicolored potatoes.”
It’s gotten to the point where Tominaga has heard his fingerlings, done right by the right chefs, described in some fairly novel ways.
“I had some lady say they were ‘sexy.’ This is my 35th crop — most of them russets — and I never thought I’d hear a potato described as sexy.”
And fingerlings are by no means the province of white-tablecloth restaurants alone, though that’s where the trend started, Tominaga said. Chains including Longhorn Steakhouse have begun serving the variety.
That’s great news for fingerling specialists like Southwind, but Tominaga said it does raise an interesting question.
“I don’t know if there’s enough supply to feed them.”
The Idaho Potato Commission is trying to get restaurants to carry Idaho potatoes year-round and to advertise that fact by displaying the Idaho seal on menus and tables, said Frank Muir, president and chief executive officer of the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission.
Colton’s Steakhouse, for example, will advertise its fresh Idaho potato skins appetizer on coasters. About 1 million coasters in all will bear the Idaho seal customers see on tables.
“There’s not exponential growth,” Muir said of foodservice demand. “We’re targeting specific customers.”
Longhorn Steakhouse’s new Idaho loaded baked potato is another example of a branded product at foodservice, Muir said.
And the commission continues to develop flyers and other communication pieces for distribution by Sysco, Ben E. Keith and other foodservice suppliers to chefs, Muir said.
“Recipe development is critical to us.”
To that end, the commission attends or sponsors chef events all over the country, and recruits bloggers for recipe development.
Fast-casual restaurants have been a growth market for foodservice spud sales, said Chris Wada, director of marketing and exports for Idaho Falls-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.
The company is enjoying strong demand for its Big Joe’s Chippers line of chipping-variety potatoes that are marketed for the fresh, not chipping, market, Wada said.
It’s the third year Wada Farms has marketed the chipping potatoes, which foodservice purveyors cut into fries and chips, as fresh product, Wada said.
The Big Joe’s Chippers brand is new this year.
Sales of specialty potatoes increase a bit every year, and foodservice is taking the bulk of them, said Gary Garnand, owner of Twin Falls-based Garnand Marketing LLC.
“I haven’t noticed as much in retail,” Garnand said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t start happening, and maybe at some high-end retailers it already has.”