As more and more restaurants serve baked sweet potatoes, shippers said they see a bump in consumer demand that translates to improved sales overall.

“Steak houses continue to keep sweet potatoes on the menu, that really helps,” said Jeff Axelberg, salesman for potatoes and onions, L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

L&M sells sweet potatoes from North Carolina, as well as Mississippi and Georgia.

The fact that food magazines continue to feature sweet potatoes has helped the market, said George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. and Bruce, Miss.-based Missiana Produce.

To help meet the foodservice demand, Wooten said his firm has added an electronic sizer in the packing house to accomodate foodservice packs.

Even with a generally down economy, Wooten points to sweet potatoes as a light on a dark night.

“I think sweet potatoes have held their own on movement at restaurants,” he said. “I think sweet potatoes have taken the consumer choice in restaurants. Where white potatoes are down at foodservice, ours have actually increased.”

Interest in the foodservice sweet potato french fry market continues to expand, said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Starkville.

While most sweet potato fries sold in restaurants are flash-frozen product, the increased interest translates into a boost in retail store sales, he said.

“When we serve baked sweet potatoes in steak houses, we see an increase in people trying them out at home, as well as in at-home grilling of sweet potatoes,” he said.

Across the south, more and more sweet potato shippers are dabbling in growing evangeline sweet potatoes, a new variety that has improved qualities for the foodservice trade.

But so far, foodservice utility of evangeline is yet to be determined, said Tara Smith, Louisiana State University’s AgCenter sweet potato specialist/research coordinator.

“We haven’t grown enough yet to really process is it in bulk, separate from other varieties,” she said, adding that most of what was harvested in 2008 was saved for seed.

This year should prove to be different, as several shippers noted devoting up to 20% of their acreage to evangelines.

While restaurants provide a great outlet for sweet potatoes, the overall health of the sector gives some shippers pause.

But that’s not enough to keep sweet potato sales to foodservice down, Wooten said, though he added, “You have to watch receivables every which way you go these days.”