(April 8) A fresh-cut potato could be coming to your neighborhood grocery store. The National Potato Promotion Board, Denver, and other grower-shippers are working to put more fresh-cut potato products on consumers’ plates.

“Fresh-cut will play a larger and larger role because of its convenience to consumers in retail and perhaps foodservice,” said Dick Okray, co-owner of Okray Family Farms, Plover, Wis. “There are some darn good products out there.”

The fresh-cut potato business remains in its infancy. Most consumers have not heard about fresh-cut potato products and cannot find them in the stores.

“What we have seen with fresh-cut is that consumers really have a lack of understanding about the product, that they even exist, where they can find it and how to use it,” said Tim O’Connor, the board’s president and chief executive officer.

INCONSISTENT DISPLAY

The products that have made it to stores are not always displayed in locations that are consistent and where the product would offer a logical extension of other products. Some have been placed near bagged salads, some in the dairy section and some near meat cases and alongside lunchmeats.

“That disconnect doesn’t get them to grab this other microwaveable roast to put together and have dinner,” O’Connor said.

Through its retail partners, the promotion board is testing display locations in stores and determining ways to help promote the products to consumers.

“Fresh-cut will play a tremendous role,” said Jack Hansen, vice president of retail merchandising for the Idaho Potato Commission, Boise.

In their desire for faster meals to match their fast lifestyles, the poorest in-home potato consumers, affluent singles and double-income, no-kids families will buy fresh-cut potato products, Hansen said.

“They want their food in 20 minutes or less, and it must taste good.”

POSSIBLE BUDGET BUSTER

Marketing remains one of the biggest hurdles preventing fresh-cut operators from getting their products to the marketplace. Most of the companies engaged in fresh-cut operations are relatively small and lack the resources to invest in marketing and advertising campaigns.

“If they had $100 million to roll out a new product in national programs and have a large brand presence, they might get on the map quickly. But it’s a struggle for small companies,” O’Connor said.

Some companies that have tried marketing fresh-cut product have ceased production and are reviewing other ways to produce and market value-added potatoes.

“For our company to be successful, it would have to be taken over by someone who has marketing ability,” said Jon Brownell, owner of Alpine Potato Co., Hooper, Colo.

Brownell was one of nine grower-shippers who invested in a refrigerated precut potato product marketed only to foodservice buyers by Aspen Produce LLC, Center, Colo., from 1998 to 2001.

“We’re a group of farmers,” he said. “We had to get and go. Somebody else with more expertise would be a better shot at this than we were.”

Getting the message to consumers, however, remains expensive.

“There’s a lot of market potential there and a lot of promotion that needs to be done,” said Randy Duckworth, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association Inc., Antigo.

OVERCAPACITY

Duckworth said some of his group’s members supply fresh-cut potato operators. He agrees there is a lot of overcapacity in the fresh-cut potato industry.

“Because it is still in its infancy stages, there has to be a lot of promotion for consumers to become aware that this is a good product and as a convenience food is worth paying extra for,” Duckworth said.

Brownell said he believes fresh-cut potatoes will take some time to become commercially successful, much like fresh-cut salads and baby carrots.

“As such products catch on in retail, they could be great products for years to come,” Brownell said. “People will be looking for them. The consumer research that has come from the potato promotion board has shown that once they try it, they will use and love such products.”

Hansen pointed to a successful promotion board program that has placed fresh-cut potato products alongside meat products.

Besides marketing costs, one problem getting value-added products to the marketplace is the limited number of operators producing fresh-cut potatoes.

A handful of Idaho value-added operations offer precut, diced, prebaked and partially cooked potato products, Hansen said.Producing peeled, ready-to-cook products has its limitations.

“If a consumer has to cook a product like ours as long as a regular fresh potato, it takes away from it,” Brownell said.