(March 17) Banking on sweet potatoes’ increasing popularity, Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. is opening a processing plant to handle fresh-cut sweet potatoes.

The Chadbourn, N.C.-based grower-shipper planned to start shipping packs of fresh-cut sweet potato chips, cubes, french fries and juliennes to foodservice customers March 17.

By fall, the company may consider adding other fresh-cut items such as bell peppers, cucumbers, kale, butternut squash, summer squash and turnips, said president and owner George Wooten.

George Foods Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary named after Wooten’s father, will pack out of a recently purchased 95,000-square-foot food processing plant in Pembroke, N.C., about 35 miles from Chadbourn.

A third of the former pie-baking plant, built in 1992, will be used to slice sweet potatoes while frozen, frozen baked and puréed products will be produced out of the rest, Wooten said.

The packs, which come in four-count, 3- and 5-pound foodservice bags, will be sold under the George Foods label.

The 72-year-old Wayne E. Bailey Produce will market the products.

“No one’s really pushing fresh-cut sweet potatoes for foodservice on the East Coast,” Wooten said. “Nationwide, sweet potato movement is moving rapidly upward. Their health benefits are a big issue. It just seems like the timing’s right.”

Wooten cited Fresh Trends research from The Packer that showed an 8% increase in consumer sweet potato purchases from 2005 to 2006.

Mann Packing Co. Inc., Salinas, Calif., in May introduced a retail fresh-cut sweet potato line. Canned and frozen operator Glory Foods, Columbus, Ohio, started a fresh-cut sweet potato line in 2001.

Foodservice sales will be the initial focus, Wooten said, with chips offering the most potential. He said fresh and frozen chips and fries are selling well in foodservice operations. Many operators may add chipped product as appetizers, Wooten said.

The company is testing retail bags and containers. Wayne E. Bailey is receiving suggestions from some of its retail customers, said Wayne E. Bailey salesman Jeff Axelberg.

Edith Garrett, the former head of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va., is working with Wayne E. Bailey as a food safety consultant.

Aaron Parker, who has worked for three decades primarily in the processed fruit and vegetable industry, joined Jan. 20 as George Foods’ general manager. Parker worked with fresh blueberries at Atlantic Blueberry Co., Hammonton, N.J.

During its first year of production, Wayne E. Bailey plans to ship up to 3 million pounds of fresh-cut sweet potatoes to customers primarily east of the Rocky Mountains, Wooten said.