A sweet potato fry trial run at Wendy’s is the latest in a string of successes for the North Carolina sweet potato foodservice industry.

Earlier this year, Wendy’s ran a trial promotion with sweet potato fries in the Atlanta market, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

“In the restaurant industry, we’re seeing more and more sweet potato fries,” she said.

Increased use of sweet potatoes in restaurants also has a nice spillover effect into other channels, Johnson-Langdon said.

“We find that whenever people taste sweet potatoes in restaurants, they tend to try them at home,” she said.

David Godwin, owner of Dunn, N.C.-based Godwin Produce Co., said foodservice demand is up across the board — sweet potato fries aren’t the only option out there.

“It’s a pretty wide variety,” he said.

“Major chains are test-marketing fries, and we’re also seeing more bakers used in restaurants.”

Mashed sweet potatoes are another increasingly popular option in restaurants, he said.

Chick-Fil-A is another fast-food chain that has experimented with sweet potato fries in select markets, Godwin said.

Sized right

Another trend in restaurants — particularly smaller, local restaurants, Godwin said — is the use of petites, jumbos and other sizes.

“They’re using a wider variety of sizes,” he said.

Foodservice should make up about 30% of Godwin Produce’s business this year, Godwin said.

Foodservice’s slice of the pie continues to increase, he said.

“Retail has held pretty steady the last couple of years,” Godwin said.

“Foodservice is on the increase more than retail.”

The Wendy’s trial run with sweet potato fries went so well, Jimmy Burch, partner in Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms Inc., expects the chain to roll them out nationwide.

“They had pretty good success,” he said.

“People bought a lot of them.”

Foodservice demand for sweet potato fries is up about 20%, Burch said.

“They’ll easily take 40% (of total sweet potato shipments) out of North Carolina just for fries,” he said.

“It’s unreal.”

It’s not just fries that are becoming a more popular sweet potato option at foodservice, Burch said.

“I was at an upscale Italian restaurant in St. Louis over the weekend,” Burch said Sept. 28.

“They had mashed sweet potatoes. More and more are putting them on menus because they’re diabetes-friendly.”

A bigger appetite

Demand for sweet potatoes continues to spike, and foodservice continues to gobble up a bigger slice of the pie each year, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

After Outback Steakhouse introduced sweet potato bakers, “every steakhouse” followed suit, Precythe said.