All things have side effects. Most notably are medicinal treatments, but not far behind are advertising campaigns and promotions.

Sweet potatoes’ popularity on the rise

Ashley Bentley
Foodservice Focus

Do you remember those little Loofa Dog toys that starred in Petsmart commercials a few years ago? The owner character had to sneak the old toy away from her little dachshund while it was sleeping, and then when it woke up frantic and worried, she took it to Petsmart for a new toy and everything was OK.

Problem was that consumers hardly know the difference between Petsmart and Petco, the two leading pet store chains, so they didn’t connect with the store in the commercials — they connected with the toy.

I was an operations manager at a Petco store during this development. Loofa Dogs sold like crazy, a huge boost for us. Thanks, Petsmart.

A similar thing is happening with sweet potatoes.

Just yesterday I received an e-mail alert from ConAgra’s frozen potato and appetizer brand Lamb Weston, and three of the company’s six new product features were some form of sweet potato fries.

Granted, the company does specialize in potatoes, but one-half is hardly the proportion sweet potatoes take up in the potato category.

Sweet potatoes, especially in fry forms, are on their way up in a huge way at restaurants.

And it’s not completely new — it’s been building for a few years — but it’s at a pretty high point right now, and Lamb Weston’s push is just one example.

In fact, ConAgra is pouring research and development dollars into making sweet potatoes grow straighter and with more consistent flesh with hopes of developing a variety that’s easier to process for mass consumption.

ConAgra will reap the benefits of its investment. It will sell its Loofa Dogs. But the entire category is going to continue to bump up with it, and producers for the fresh market will get to ride the wave.

As people become more familiar with sweet potatoes — seeing the orange vegetables in their familiar baked and newer french fry form — they’re going to be more comfortable with other forms, as well.

Restaurants already serve the vegetable on sandwiches, in desserts and even more in ethnic dishes.

Sweet potato growers are increasing production each year, and are easily finding the demand.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the U.S. produced 19.6 million cwt. of sweet potatoes in 2009, up 7% from 2008 and 9% from 2007. That’s even with excessive rains in Mississippi taking their toll last year.

So Lamb Weston, keep up the good advertising. But don’t be surprised if chefs and foodservice operators are connecting with the food more than the store … I mean source.

E-mail abentley@thepacker.com

What's your take on the increased use of sweet potatoes in foodservice? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.