More and more restaurant chains seem to be adding sweet potatoes to their menus, said Jimmy Burch Sr., partner in Burch Farms Inc., Faison, N.C.

“Outback Steakhouse just put sweet potato fries on its menu nationwide,” Burch said.

ConAgra is putting in a $200 million plant in Louisiana to make sweet potato French fries, Burch said.

“Somebody’s got some interest,” he said.

“We have a hanging electronic sizer, so we do a lot of business with foodservice and chain stores,” said Stewart Precythe, chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.

“Sweet potatoes are a hot item right now in all the restaurants and all of the steakhouses. There are so many different types of dishes they can make with them. There are thousands of ways to prepare a sweet potato. That’s why chefs really like them,” Precythe said.

The foodservice part of the industry is really growing, Burch said.

“It’s a good time to be a sweet potato grower,” he said.

Retail is currently the largest market for sweet potatoes at Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., and industry wide, said George Wooten, president.

“During the holidays we get them up front and get a good place for them. And sweet potato consumption is up in the chain stores,” Precythe said.

“They’re getting the health message out, too,” Burch said.

Sweet potatoes’ nutrition value is a big selling point.

“The U.S. (Department of Agriculture) and everyone is promoting it and all the retailers are listening,” Burch said.

“They’re promoting them, and people are cooking more at home now because of the recession, so people are buying more sweet potatoes at the supermarkets,” he said.

Some in the industry think health is a big sweet potato selling point, but the product’s taste and versatility makes it very popular.

“The research we have done shows that while health and nutrition are factors in the consumers’ choices, it is not the determining factor. Taste and versatility still reign supreme,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, Benson.

Sweet potatoes can be found in bulk displays, microwaveable packs, in organics, in chips, fries, dog food and juices.
“We have responded to the needs of the consumer,” Wooten said.

“As you may have heard, one of the biggest items is frozen sweet potato french fries,” Wooten said.

Wooten said growers are fortunate that the fries are doing so well because it has helped maintained profit levels.

Some products have taken awhile to become popular, but are now selling well, Wooten said.

“Some of the ideas that we have been working on, some of our fresh-cut and bags,” have been in the making for years, Wooten said.

The company’s sweet potato fingerling program, which has had success in foodservice and retail, was five years in the making, Wooten said.

The company also started its consumer bag business in 1990, but its most successful bag program was in the last year.

“They (families) are able to pick up a bag, a good quality product” that has some discount value, Wooten said.

“It’s working well.”