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Potatoes: Spud Story

Getting up to speed on the latest in purchasing and preparing potatoes.

“The 2008 Idaho potato harvest was generating headline news before the first field was even harvested because some industry experts believe it may be smaller—total U.S. potato acreage is down 8 percent while Idaho is down an estimated 14 percent,” says Frank Muir, CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. “However, despite fewer acres planted, we experienced very favorable growing conditions in Idaho, which typically results in a high yield of quality potatoes.”

The United States Potato Board issued a statement with a similar assessment: “Supplies of potatoes, especially Russet varieties, may be somewhat limited, but potatoes continue to be priced lower than most other commodities. This fall, more than 930,000 acres of potatoes will be harvested. Increasing costs of production and higher returns for other commodities have contributed to reduced potato acreage, but a healthy growing season is likely to bring supplies into balance with demand.”

CHALLENGE: Frying up profits

SOLUTION: Hedging potato prices 

An adequate potato supply is good news for Bagger Dave’s, a new burger concept with two locations in metro Detroit. The purchasing department of parent company Diversified Restaurant Holdings, Inc. buys a lot of fresh potatoes for the menu’s two signatures: Belgian-style Idaho Potato Fries and Dave’s Sweet Chips. The fries are fresh-cut with a hand-operated device, while the chips are sliced to uniform thickness with a commercial food processor. Both are prepped onsite and fried to order in peanut oil. “Our goal from the beginning was to fit into the fresh niche in the burger segment and do everything from scratch,” says Michael Ansley, president and CEO of Diversified.

He admits it’s been a tough buying environment since Bagger Dave’s opened its first store in January 2008. “Everyone is fighting for the same potato,” Ansley claims. “Prices have gone up 100 percent this year on Burbank Russet #2 potatoes from Idaho—the type we all spec for fries. I was paying $9.75 for a 50-pound bag and now they’re $17.50.” Even so, that’s good compared to the wholesale market price of $22 to $23. With its buying power, Bagger Dave’s was able to work out a deal with its regular Detroit distributor who hedged for them.

Ansley took a different tack to source product for his chips. “We found we could get North Carolina sweet potatoes at the cheapest price from our produce supplier—not our broadliner. We’re paying $12.75 for a 40-pound box,” he reports. Even so, the peanut oil to fry up both potato items is taking a toll—prices have jumped from $35 to $62 for a 35-pound container.

Although he’s had to pass some of these costs on to customers, Ansley expects things to stabilize as the fall potato crop comes in and supplies increase. Meanwhile, Bagger Dave’s continues to spec and cook-to-order as they’ve been doing. “There’s more training and labor involved, but we’ve created an efficient system and customers love our homemade, fresh-cut potatoes,” he adds.


Q & A with Robert Tominga

President, Southwind Farms, grower/shipper of specialty potatoes, Heyburn, Idaho

What are some of the niche potato varieties you’re growing?

Russian Banana fingerling potatoes are our main crop, but we’re also growing Ruby Crescents, Red Thumb and Purple Peruvian fingerlings. A big item for foodservice is the medley—a 10-pound box filled with 70 percent Russian Banana, 15 percent red and 15 percent purple. It gives operators a lot of options. This mix comes in 20- and 50-pound boxes, too.

Has foodservice demand for specialty potatoes increased?
Ten years ago, we started by planting a half acre. This year, we’re harvesting 200 acres and next year we expect to have 400 acres in production. Demand has gone way up for specialty potatoes, especially in restaurants, but the crop is ample this year. However, Russet Burbanks [large Idaho potatoes] still comprise
60 percent of foodservice purchases.

Are there any innovations operators may expect to see?
We’re planting fingerling and waxy varieties with new color patterns. The flavor and texture will remain the same, but the colors will be variegated. Right now, one-pound steamer trays of fingerlings and other small potatoes are going into retail and we’re looking into foodservice applications. These plastic trays hold uniform-sized potatoes covered with plastic film; they go directly into the microwave and the water content in the potatoes cooks them through, preserving the color. This would be convenient for many restaurant operators.

Can you share some storage and handling tips for specialty potatoes?
Buy what you need for two to three days and reorder when you run out. Keep the potatoes cold—38° to 42°F—and protected from light. Light is a killer. Don’t store with strongly flavored foods, like cheese; potatoes tend to absorb odors and flavors.

A fully baked idea

Jason Apfelbaum got into potatoes back in college. As a project for a marketing course, he wrote up a proposal for a baked potato vending cart he dubbed “Commander Spuds.” Twenty years later, Commander Spuds sprung to life as Totally Baked, a café occupying the storefront of Apfelbaum’s New York City catering company.

In a small space decorated to look “like a modern baked potato,” customers can choose from over 30 potato-centric menu items ranging in price from $4.50 to $55 (for the famous Truffle selection made with truffle compound butter, truffle oil, truffle salt and fresh truffle shavings.) More wallet-friendly preps include Spinach with frizzled leeks and manchego cheese, Steak (grilled rosemary skirt steak, caramelized shallots and Maytag blue cheese) and Smoked Turkey Chowder with roasted corn, carrots and applewood smoked bacon—all of which start with 12- to 14-ounce Yukon Gold Chef’s potatoes. Idaho Russets form the base for salad-topped taters and sweet potatoes are gussied up with dessert treatments.

“I underestimated the power of the potato—people really relate to its simplicity and are responding so well to our concept,” says Apfelbaum of the four-month-old Totally Baked. His ultimate goal is to open locations in college towns across the country.

In the meantime, this potato maven is always thinking up new ways to menu the spud. His most recent creation— The “NY Reuben” Baked Potato—won second place in a recent United States Potato Board culinary contest. The filling of corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, mustard sauce and Russian dressing really says “New York City deli,” which is exactly what Apfelbaum intended.


Hot potatoes

About 38 percent of the U.S. potato crop goes into frozen potatoes, while 25 percent is marketed as fresh. With frozen french fries such a high-volume purchase for foodservice, manufacturers are keeping pace by constantly developing line extensions and new configurations. In addition to fries, leaders such as Simplot, McCain and Lamb Weston offer convenient roasted, mashed, hash brown and specialty frozen potato products. Here’s what’s cooking in the potato pot.

Zero trans fat was the big push a few years back, and the majority of potato products are currently trans-fat free. Companies are now focusing on pumping up flavor without adding too much sodium. “Operators are looking for high flavor, high yielding products that will spice up the menu,” says Tom Clark, director of marketing for Simplot, which is expanding its spicy JR Buffalo Sticks line. McCain has introduced New Deli Roasters, reduced-sodium oven roast potatoes with 40 percent less sodium than earlier offerings, as well as Reduced Sodium Smiles for kids.

Along with the spicy trend, ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston is following a growing culinary awareness among diners. “There’s a significant growth of interest in sweet potatoes, for both their flavor and health halo,” reports Andy Johnston, VP of marketing, “and consumers really know their specialty potatoes and want more of these.” Lamb’s Natural Chips made from varieties of purple and rose potatoes are a recent product introduction in step with this trend, as are the company’s My Fries, made with Yukon Gold potatoes. Simplot’s Roastworks flame-roasted line includes Yukon Golds, sweet potatoes, Russets and redskins and McCain’s Harvest Splendor line offers sweet potato fries and other variations. “Sweet potato innovation will allow us to expand one of our fastest growing product lines and capitalize on one of the hottest up-and-coming menu items,” says Dan Singer, director of marketing-foodservice for McCain

Potatoes are also being positioned as appetizers to snag bar food customers, especially in casual dining. Stuffed baby potatoes, mashed potato bites and traditional, beer-battered and seasoned fries can be served as is or signaturized with dips or other touches.


Product cutting: Frozen french fries

Led by McCain Foodservice

  1. Inspect boxes. French fries are relatively delicate and you must make sure they were handled and stored properly. Are there any signs of damage, such as crushed corners, tears or open packages?
  2. Make sure product is frozen. Always cook fries from the frozen state; don’t allow them to slack out.
  3. Select a package from the middle of the case. Open and check appearance of potatoes. Defects caused by handling damage, disease or rot are classified as critical, major or minor depending on their size and color.
  4. Check your fryer. Preferably, use a fryer dedicated to french fries. Is the oil clean and/or has it been changed recently? Is the temperature correctly calibrated?
  5. Cook potatoes according to directions and temperature on the case. Fill the fryer basket half full, drop it in the hot oil and set timer for correct cooking time. Shake basket after about 30 seconds.
  6. Drain basket over fryer for 5 to 10 seconds. Remove fries and salt before tasting.
  7. Taste the fries. They should have real potato flavor, a crispy exterior and a fluffy “baked potato” interior texture.
  8. Check hold time. The longer fries retain their taste and texture, the longer they remain sellable. Higher potato solids, larger cut size and straight-cut shapes hold longest.
  9. Note yield. The more french fry servings per case, the more profit per case.

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