North Carolina sweet potato growers and shippers have staked a claim on restaurant menus. Now, they say, they’d like diners to have multiple sweet potato options.
The first step was finding a place in restaurants across the country. That’s done.
“Sweet potatoes are slowly but surely making gains in the foodservice sector, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
The commission has been working on promotional ideas to push for more menu choices.
In 2013 the organization ran a recipe contest for independent restaurant operators in the Southeast and invited chefs and consumers to look at sweet potatoes in new ways.
The winning entries were Cuban sweet potato tacos at Taqueria del Sol and sweet potato rice pudding at The King’s Kitchen. Sweet potato churros from Cantina 18 won the People’s Choice honors.
The Savor Your Sweets promotion ran throughout the Southeast, with heaviest participation in North Carolina, where nearly half of all U.S.-grown sweet potatoes are produced.
More recently, the commission has created a branded website, www.ncsweetpotatoes.com/52-ways-to-love-sweet-potatoes, for the promotion, which includes 52 sweet potato recipes, one for each week of the year.
Sweet potatoes in many instances have reached almost parity with white potatoes, with french fries leading the way, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Faison, N.C.-based grower-shipper Burch Farms.
More important, it’s a national phenomenon, Burch said.
“We’re really mainstream in steakhouses across the country,” he said.
That growth has come by different means, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, N.C.
“One is existing customers that have had them and continue to use them, and you have more and more consumers that are buying them,” he said.
Twenty years ago, consumption of white potatoes compared to sweet potatoes probably was around 3 to 1, Wooten said.
That difference is gone in many restaurants, thanks to the emergence of the baking potato, as well as the french fries, he said.
That’s how options can be helpful, Wooten said.
“The restaurants that are using them and the ones using them are trying to look at doing multiple offerings of sweet potatoes and not just one product anymore,” he said.
There’s still plenty of room for growth in foodservice, Wooten said.
“There’s still restaurants that don’t use them and there are those that could but haven’t yet made the switch,” he said.
Multiple offerings are crucial to category growth, agreed Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce Co.
“Sweet potatoes are offered in lots of restaurants in a variety of new options with the chefs and consumers both benefiting from these new options,” he said.
Quick-service restaurants have gotten into sweet potatoes, and that has amped up foodservice business, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, Faison.
“Wendy’s had sweet potato fries and it worked for them. The whole fry business is really picking up in popularity,” he said.