The United Nations declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, in recognition of the tuber’s status as a staple food in the diet of the world’s population. Judging by the growing number of spud-centric menu offerings at restaurants across the U.S., any year could be the year of the potato. About 8 out of 10 consumers eat some form of potatoes 3.6 times every two weeks, according to the U. S. Potato Board, a sign that the tuber—once considered taboo by low-carb diet enthusiasts—is making a comeback.
Fast-food restaurants such as Wendy’s introduced baked potato items to their menus in the 1980s, emphasizing a variety of toppings, and sales skyrocketed. But then in early 2000, the wildly popular Atkins Diet—with its focus on high protein, low-carb foods—became a national phenomenon, and foods like bread, pasta, and potatoes were pushed to the sidelines.
In recent years, however, as consumers have become more educated about the nutrition values found in whole foods, potatoes are once again in vogue. For good reason: One medium potato contains no fat, sodium, or cholesterol, and has 110 calories. It provides 45 percent of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin C and it’s also a good source of potassium, containing more than bananas, spinach, or broccoli. The U.S. Potato Board recently launched a national print advertising campaign to debunk the nutrition myths surrounding potatoes and “peel back the truth” about the nutritional benefits of potatoes.
“People have learned that potatoes are indeed healthy and good for you,” explains Lisa Tillman, director of product development for Jason’s Deli. The restaurant chain offers five signature stuffed potatoes on its menu, three of which are registered trademark spuds: The Plain Jane, a natural buttery blend loaded with cheddar, sour cream, bacon, and green onions; the Spud Au Broc, covered with broccoli cheese soup, cheddar, fresh broccoli, green onions, and bacon; and the Texas Style Spud, topped with smoked barbecue meat, cheddar, and butter.
“With our selection, we try to offer something for everyone,” Tillman says. “We want to satisfy lots of different tastes.”
What many of the most popular baked potato toppings have in common, the experts say, is familiarity. “Traditional toppings are our most popular,” says Joan Scharff, executive director of brand and menu strategy for Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants, a chain owned by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp.
Known for its focus on made-from-scratch, wholesome ingredients, Souplantation, which has 110 restaurants in 15 states, offers russet baked potatoes as part of its 55-foot salad bar full of seasonal vegetables and tossed salads, giving consumers the option of choosing their own toppings. Scharff says customers favor classic toppings such as broccoli and cheese.
Ben Brechtel, director of operations for McAlister’s Deli, a fast-casual restaurant chain with more than 275 locations in the U.S. featuring high-quality deli-style foods, agrees that comfort ingredients have tremendous appeal for potato lovers. The restaurant chain’s most popular spud is the Spud Max, an extra-large potato topped with ham, turkey, bacon, cheddar, Swiss cheese, green onions, black olives, and light sour cream on the side. “It’s like a club sandwich in a potato,” he says. “The potato is a meal in itself.”
Brechtel has noticed a definite spike in baked potato sales in the winter months. “When it’s colder, people tend to want warm comfort foods like our baked potatoes,” he says.
City Bites, an Oklahoma-based restaurant chain with 17 metro locations, also offers a range of comfort-inspired spuds. The Pot Roast Spud is topped with juicy pot roast, carrots, gravy, and margarine. Its Smoked Turkey & Bacon Spud comes with those ingredients as well as homemade spicy ranch dressing, cheddar, and margarine.