Facts first. The white potato French fry is king. The average American consumes 100 pounds of white potatoes every year, and one third of that is in fries, according to John Kimber, project director of Kimber and Company in Raleigh, North Carolina. But the beauty of that statistic is that it provides a beautiful market model for what Kimber knew he wanted to do with sweet potatoes.
Kimber doesn’t aspire to knock the white potato off its pedestal. He aspires to emulate the white potato powerhouse position. But he wants to do it with sweet potatoes.
“We were looking for a model. Would you pick rutabaga or the white potato?” he jokes. “We spent time trying to understand the white potato market. We had our focus on what was clearly a winner.
“The white potato industry transitioned from a commodity seller of bulk potatoes to selling highly specialized varieties of potatoes and potato products. They have done a wonderful job all the way through, including lowering the cost of processing and of getting the products to the market. The sweet potato lagged by a long time.”
Five years ago, Kimber got funding from North Carolina’s Golden Leaf Foundation to pursue improving the economic market for sweet potatoes.
Kimber and the sweet potato industry as a whole have their work cut out for them. The Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission says the average American consumes about 4.2 pounds of sweet potatoes every year. That’s a long way from that 100 pound white potato mark. But it means the market is open for improvement.
And the market is still young. McCain Foodservice’s brand of sweet potato fries have been on the product list for less than five years, says Don Moos, director of food service marketing for potato products at McCain.
“Has it been an easy sell? It’s percolated. As [sweet potato fries] have become more popular in the consumer world, we see it in the culinary world. Chefs start playing off it. So it’s been steady growth,” Moos says.
“There’s a growing awareness that sweet potatoes are not just a holiday vegetable any more; they are a year round vegetable,” Kimber says. “The public is aware of baked sweet potatoes at steak houses. That has provided validation to consumers. It’s a natural evolution to try a fry.”
Frozen products on the market include two sizes of frozen fry, a thin fry and a thicker fry. Shelf life, according to McCain, is 12 months. Prep for each is as simple as any white potato fry: Drop the frozen fries straight into the fryer. Ed Darling, kitchen manager at PK’s in Blacksburg, Virginia, says the only adjustment his kitchen had to deal with was adding a separate timer for sweet potato fries since sweet potatoes are done in about half the time it takes white potato fries to cook. As Moos points out, that’s a positive for any quick-serve operator.
The real challenge for operators lies in marketing. Though people are increasingly willing to try sweet potatoes beyond the holidays, many customers remain convinced they are not sweet potato fans. However, taste tests have shown positive results—even among those who previously claimed not to like sweet potatoes.
And recent nutritional news should make marketing sweet potatoes easier. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, for example, ranked the sweet potato at the top of its “Nutrition Scoreboard” list—first place by 100 points—based on fiber, “good” carbs, protein, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Messages such as this only work in the sweet potato’s favor. “The average consumer may not understand the specifics,” Kimber says, “but they know it’s better to have a sweet potato on their plate.”
But how healthy is a sweet potato fry—really?
“It’s a sweet potato before it’s a fry,” says Elizabeth DeRose, executive director at restaurant consulting firm Vucurevich/Simons Advisory Group. From a consumer perspective, she says, the health perception overrides the fried aspect. A consumer might think: “I might be eating fried food, but at least I’m getting my A, C, beta carotene, etc.” Plus, even the frozen fries can be baked.
Offering sweet potatoes can also earn operators credit for being creative. “We love to see the color and the flavor of a sweet potato on the plate,” DeRose says. “There’s a shift back towards comfort food, and sweet potatoes have a role in that movement. It’s a Southern dish, and it’s comfort food.”
If there’s doubt in an operator’s mind about adding sweet potatoes, Kimber likes to remind them that from a foodservice point of view, fries are one of the most profitable items on the menu. Sweet potato fries are slightly more expensive than regular fries because processing is not nearly as efficient as processing for white potatoes. Sweet potatoes travel from their growing fields in the South to processing plants across the country; white potatoes are usually grown and processed in relative proximity. But that extra expense can be rolled into the menu price with little push back from the consumer. “My understanding is that restaurants can get 25 to 30 percent more for an order of sweet potato fries,” Kimber says.