Whether or not it’s their account, sweet potato grower-shippers are fans of the Outback Steakhouse chain.
It was the Tampa, Fla.-based OSI Restaurant Partners LLC,owners of the Outback Steakhouse and other chains, that growers credited for bringing fresh sweet potatoes to a wider audience in foodservice.
“I think the big move for sweet potatoes came when the shippers broke into Outback Steakhouse and started supplying sweet potatoes into steakhouses,” said Stewart Precythe, chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Distributors.
“Once you get into the Outback, competitors go in and see what’s on each other’s menus. Now all the big steakhouses have them in some way.”
The foodservice demand, combined with demand from the processing side of the business, has helped keep the market stable, Precythe said.
“I never dreamed it would be like this,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison-based Burch Farms. “With all the chains adding them and restaurants adding them, the business has just grown.”
All that foodservice business spills over into retail, as well.
“People eat them in a restaurant and say, ‘Golly, these are pretty good,’” said Jerome Vick, co-owner of Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C. “Then they cook them at home. Our year-round consumption is really benefiting.”
Thomas Joyner, president of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce agreed.
“We’ve begun to see them in restaurants as fries and chips,” he said. “Every time we put them in front of the consumer, it creates more demand.”
Of course, that demand means some growing pains. It’s necessitated more sophisticated equipment, said Shane Watt, director of sweet potatoes for Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“We are working on programs with individual foodservice companies, and we have the electronic sizers at our facility so we can have specific sizes,” he said. “Foodservice accounts have to have the consistent sizing.”
One thing foodservice is good for is innovation.
George Wooten, president and owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce said most chefs are looking for something new and exciting for their menus and niche varieties like fingerlings fit that bill.
“Foodservice has been a little bit steadier with them,” he said.
The Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission is reaching out to foodservice operators, particularly the institutional side of the category.
“We’re going to be working with a group of dining operations to do promotions in some of their facilities,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director. “There will be sweet potatoes on the menu for promotional times through this and also banners, counter signs, table tents and leaflets.”