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Foodservice still holds growth potential

Consumers are spending food dollars at foodservice at unprecedented rates, and the potato industry recognizes the opportunity, marketers say.

“Foodservice continues to grow in importance to the potato category,” said Kim Breshears, marketing programs director with Denver-based Potatoes USA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, as of 2016, consumers now spend more of their food dollar at foodservice than retail, Breshears said.

“As such, the foodservice sector is very important to the potato industry,” she said. 
Effectively marketing to such a key sector involves a combination of building relationships, featuring new menu ideas and maintaining a consistent marketing presence that showcases potatoes’ benefits, Breshears said.

“Potatoes are currently on 82.9% of menus,” she said. “Providing restaurants with the very highest-quality product is extremely important. Additionally, working with the suppliers to provide chefs with a wide range of potato options will increase the number of potato dishes on menus.”

New varieties are getting special attention from chefs, said John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing with Monte Vista, Colo.-based MountainKing Potato.

“As varietal potatoes continue to become more prevalent on restaurant menus, we’re creating a one-stop shopping experience whereby foodservice distributors can pick up golds, reds, creamers, fingerlings and organics at a single MountainKing shed,” Pope said. 

“This model stands to save significant costs compared to the fragmented manner in which these items are currently purchased from different growing areas and growers.” Tailored marketing support from MountainKing also includes table tents, recipe cards and training videos for the foodservice segment, Pope said.

Some marketers note that the foodservice industry has become a contract-based arrangement.

“At the retail level, promotions, displays, special packaging and coupons can all be a factor in marketing. However, these options are not available throughout foodservice,” said Tim Huffcutt, marketing director for Bancroft, Wis.-based Russet Potato Exchange Inc. 

“The main focus of the foodservice industry is price, quality and service from the contracted supplier.”

There is still room for growth in the foodservice sector, said Ken Wiles, general manager of Lake Wales, Fla.-based Mack Farms Inc.

“We’re really finding an increase in foodservice use,” he said. 

The key is offering more and varied sizes, Wiles said.

“Offer a 15-pound instead of a 50-pound. Also, more specialties, such as fingerlings, baby creamers or purple specialties, especially that go to the white-tablecloth markets,” he said.

Quality is paramount for foodservice sales, although there is some wiggle room on aesthetics, Wiles said.

“On the A-size potatoes, they tend to buy more for the back kitchens,” he said. 

“They may not be demanding more eye appeal that somebody like the Publix might want; they want a large on yellow-flesh potatoes, which is something we’ve seen a real increase in.”

Sometimes, events can bring chefs, growers and consumers together to test out new menu ideas for potatoes. That was the idea behind a chef competition the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association developed for the annual Celebrate Plover community festival July 28 in Plover, Wis. 

“The competition allowed for face-to-face communications, fun and creativity all lumped into one day,” said Dana Rady, the association’s director of promotion, communication and consumer education.

A chef from an area restaurant paired with a Wisconsin potato grower to form a team and cook potato-centric dishes using locally-sourced ingredients, Rady said, noting that four teams competed.

The first round in the competition was to prepare an appetizer in 30 minutes; the second, a main dish in 45 minutes; and the final, a dessert in 30 minutes. 

Prior to the competition, a tasting panel of chefs and growers sampled and rated the varieties that went into each creation.

“This allowed each chef to see and experience how different varieties of the same type of potato really are, and speak with the grower about his/her growing practices on those specific varieties,” Rady said.

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