Potatoes and onions stock the pantry of any restaurant operation, but that doesn’t mean that the market isn’t changing.

Although potatoes remain a leading option for side dishes on restaurant menus across the country, restaurants are branching out in the way they use potatoes and the types of potatoes they use, striving to give their customers something new and unique, said Tim Feit, director of promotion and consumer education for the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, Antigo.

Nursing homes, universities

Despite the recession, business has stayed steady for Monterey, Calif.-based foodservice distributor Pro*Act, said Mike Gorczyca, procurement manager. The company’s member distributors have been able to target new business opportunities where some traditional foodservice segments have slowed, he said.

“Nursing homes and the medical field are growing segments right now,” Gorczyca said.

University, business and institutional foodservice are promising venues for fingerlings and other specialty potatoes, said Richard Leibowitz, managing director of Specialty Potato Alliance, Mountainside, N.J.

“We’re very interested in expanding there,” Leibowitz said. “A lot already use Russian bananas and yellow potatoes, but our goal would be to get them into our proprietary varieties.”

The company markets numerous proprietary varieties, including Rocky Rose and Red Rebel.

Specialty Tomato-Avocado, San Antonio, also markets specialty potatoes for institutional foodservice use and has seen rising popularity for red and white potatoes.

Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Rosholt, Wis.-based Bushman’s Inc., said the foodservice segment is still focused on the traditional baked potato to go along with high-end meals like steak dinners. Red potatoes come in second for foodservice.

Red potatoes are especially popular in fine-dining restaurants, said Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, East Grand Forks, Minn. Kreis said in some restaurants, russet potatoes aren’t even a choice.

Carter recognized the U.S. Potato Board, Denver, for its work with chefs to introduce them to the gamut of potato varieties. The board held its annual Menu Innovations with Potatoes chef seminar at the Culinary Institute of America — Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., the last week of October.

Over the past few seasons some restaurants have downsized the potatoes on their plates to save on food costs. This tactic doesn’t work for steakhouses or other restaurants known for serving a large potato, but has seemed to work for others.

If the market for large potatoes is tight and the price differential between cartons of medium-size potatoes versus large potatoes is $4-5 this year as it was last year, Gorczyca said he expects to see similar downsizing among foodservice operators.

Business picking up

Pro*Act distributors have seen an uptick in business recently, which Gorczyca attributes to schools starting up again this fall and consumers slowly trending back toward restaurants.

“Some people are going out to eat a little more again,” Gorczyca said. “And our members are hearing a lot of good things, that their customers want to serve more healthy items.”

The foodservice segment prefers russet burbanks for their cooking and eating quality, while the retail segments tends toward russet norkotahs, particularly for bin sales for their size and uniformity in shape.

The foodservice industry prefers jumbo yellow and jumbo red onions, while the white onions remain a smaller piece of the segment. Sweet onions, in particular, are too costly for many foodservice uses, and chefs and cooks will opt to use yellow onions and cook them to sweeten them up.

Fresh-cut labor saving

Foodservice is a leading segment for Oxnard, Calif.-based Gills Onions, which supplies fresh-cut yellow and red onions.

“The foodservice industry is looking for ways to provide more healthful meal solutions,” said Nelia Alamo, director of sales and marketing for Gills. “Incorporating more produce is an easy way to do that. Labor is also a huge issue, so a product that can provide two solutions to their problem and deliver consistent quality is a win-win.”

In addition to its traditional foodservice cuts, the company also offers a diced celery and onion mix for foodservice and retail. Alamo expects it to be especially popular over the holiday season.

When it comes to red potatoes, Paul Dolan of Associated Potato Growers said foodservice customers prefer the larger sizes. Dolan, general manager of the Grand Forks, N.D.-based company, said that B- and C-size red potatoes are gaining some foodservice demand, and end up served as multiple whole potatoes on the plate.

Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilcox Fresh, Rexburg, Idaho, said restaurants are still seeing decreased traffic from people eating at home more.

Richter said he didn’t expect to see restaurants sizing down their potatoes this year because the price differential between large and medium potatoes shouldn’t be significant.

“This year, because large potatoes are so plentiful, restaurants will go back to the size profile they had in the past,” Richter said.

Where restaurants may find the market more strapped is actually in No. 2 size potatoes, often used for fresh-cut French fries at foodservice.

“Some of our lots you could see packing out 85% No. 1s, leaving less for No. 2s,” Richter said.