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French fries are still king but, the princes are gaining.

French Fries Are Still King, But the Princes Are Gaining

While Europe increasingly diversifies into other frozen potato items, American processors redefine just what a French fry is. But fries aren't alone on U.S. retail market, either.

You think you know French fries? What about a curled fry that looks a bit like a corkscrew, or coated fries that come in assorted flavors?

It's not just straight cut and crinkle cut and shoestring these days. It isn't even just steak fries and home fries. It's not always fries at all, at least in the retail market, with booming items like baked potato skins and twice-baked potatoes.

Europe has been the traditional center of innovation for frozen potato products, and with good reason. Most people on the west side of the Atlantic wouldn't have the foggiest idea what a "rosti" is, or a "noisette," or even a potato croquette.

As for French fries, they are an American phenomenon. As actor Paul Dooley put it, in the movie Breaking Away, playing a harried father whose son has gone on an Italian culture kick, "I don't want none of this Idey food. I want American food. Gimme French fries."

Dooley and others have been given billions of them by fast food chains like McDonald's, and the same chains -- or clones of them -- have spread the taste for them to Europe, and even Japan. No matter if they're called "pommes frites" -- everybody knows what they are.

They sure know what they are in Japan, which imported 102,045 tons from the United States alone last year -- vs. some 127,421 tons in all frozen potato categories from all sources in 1988. U.S. exports of all other kinds of frozen potato products to Japan last year were a scant 6,458 tons, or barely six percent of the total. According to a spokesman for Ore-Ida Foods, Inc., Boise, Idaho, one of the major exporters, there has been some interest in potato wedges, but they haven't shown growth.

It's a different story in the domestic market. Universal Frozen Foods Corp., also of Boise, has developed alternatives to traditional French fries -- initially for the foodservice market, more recently for retail. And they've actually caught on, first with some of the fast food chains like Hardee's and, more recently, in retail markets outside the largest metropolitan areas -- so much so that demand has out-stripped production and other potato companies have gotten into the game.

"I have literally had customers threaten to sue me because I couldn't sell them Curley Fries and coated fries," Glenn Proctor, Universal's retail marketing manager, told Quick Frozen Foods International. A $10.7 million plant modernization program to boost production capacity has been announced. Even without it, according to Proctor, Universal has achieved a collective 14% market share for its new retail products (carried under the Inland Valley brand) in the Dallas Market, and 11.5% in the Phoenix market. The nationwide share is 3.8%, even though the products are in only 36 of 54 markets -- not including Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco.

Universal's retail line includes Curley Q's Fries, which Proctor compared jestingly to pigs' tails, three varieties of coated fries (Long Branch, Barbecue and Fajita), and tater babies (coated wedges). The seasoned varieties coated come in different flavors -- "zesty western" for Long Branch, mild barbecue for Barbecue, and Mexican for Fajita. Besides flavor, Proctor said, the seasoned coatings offer another advantage: the fries come out better in home ovens. In fast food outlets, fries are deep-fat fried, but nobody wants a greasy pot of oil at home; on the other hand, conventional fries heated in an oven tend to come out soggy. "The coating itself produces a crisper product, a product more comparable to foodservice fries," he said.

Curley Q's Fries for fast food outlets are also coated, but retail versions are plain thus far -- there are more complications in producing curled oven fries with coating, Proctor explained. But Curley Q's Fries have touched off a revolution in foodservice. "It used to be, when you went into a fast food place and you wanted fries, the only option was, `What size?'" he recalled. "Curley fries and coated fries are marketed as an additional choice." Because they cost more than conventional fries, he said, they haven't cannibalized the market to any great extent. If an outlet used 20 cases of conventional fries before, it may go through 15 cases each now of conventional and curled or coated fries -- and the latter offer higher margins. "We're getting sales from people who didn't order fries before," he said.

Foodservice sales in the United States are still dominated by standard French fries -- McDonald's alone buys 600 million to 700 million pounds a year. But according to one market survey, only 50.5% of retail potato sales are in French fries; 17.6% are in hash browns, 21.5% in assorted extruded products, such as J.R. Simplot's Tater Tots (Simplot -- based too in Boise -- cites Tater Tots as "our second best-selling item"), and 10.5% "other." The "other" must include items like Ore-Ida's Golden Patties and Twice Baked Potatoes, and Penobscot Frozen Foods' Baked Potato Skins (Penobscot, based in Belfast, Maine, also makes stuffed potato dishes, including private label for Pathmark and Winn Dixie). And Old Fashioned Kitchen, Lakewood, N.J., offers potato pancakes.

U.S. French fry processors have a virtual captive market in Japan, since the shortage of land with the right growing conditions precludes raising potatoes. And business keeps booming: Kentucky Fried Chicken alone opens 70 or 80 new units a year, according to a spokesman for Ore-Ida. Japanese fast food restaurants tend to be smaller on average than those in America, but traffic counts are fantastic: "You could open a whole block of fast food places, all in the same shopping center, and they'd all do a land office business." But pleasing Japanese importers isn't easy: "They don't understand why every strip can't be the same length," Ore-Ida's man said. "We remove as many of the shorts as we can. We had to go back and make a more uniform size of wedge, too." But at least the rejects can be ground up and used in extruded products.

Although exports to Japan slowed in the final quarter last year, due mainly to price increases, long-term prospects look bright. Simplot, sole supplier to McDonald's, is looking forward to a 10% annual increase in shipments over the next 10 years because of the expansion in the number of Japanese outlets, according to Bob Mercer, executive director of the National Potato Promotion Board. Korea, which has resisted potato imports in the past, seems to be softening since the 1988 Olympics, he added, and Taiwan and Thailand are two more potential markets in the Far East. Although the United States ranks behind the Soviet Union, China and Poland in potato production, Mercer said, the other countries can't compete with U.S. russet burbank potatoes in quality. And despite Japan's seeming monomania about French fries, there may be openings for other products: Ore-Ida mentions pre-baked potatoes, and the Japanese Frozen Food Times recently had a piece on Iglo extruded products in Japanese packaging.

Iglo is a European brand, of course, from Langnese-Iglo, a Unilever affiliate in West Germany. Europe has a booming frozen potato products economy. In the Netherlands alone, production of potatoes for export was 1,514,300 tons last year, vs. 1,327,000 in 1988 and 1,262,000 in 1987. Total exports of fresh potatoes were 302,000 tons last year, vs. 306,000 in 1988 -- but processed, pre-fried potato products accounted for 608,200 tons in exports, while production of processed potato products was up to 1,825,000 tons from 1,723,000. West Germany, at 184,300 tons, and Britain, at 156,300, were by far the largest customers for processed pre-fried products. All these figures are from the Nederlands Voorlichtingsinstituut voor Aardaappelen en Uien (the Dutch Potato and Onion Consultative Institute).

Aviko B.V., Steenderen, is one of the Dutch processors that has built its market around more imaginative products as well as French fries. Its line includes rostis (a form of shredded potato) and noisettes (potato balls), croquettes and rissolees (diced potatoes), Pom-a-Part (quartered potatoes) and Pom Toupies (potato tops), Pommes Macaire (potato omelettes) and Rostikos (has browns), Pommes Etoiles (potato stars) and Pommes Parisiennes (baby roast potatoes). There are even Pommes Duchesses, which look a bit like confections, made from mashed potatoes, and Reibekuchen, which are very thin potato pancakes. Of course, Aviko doesn't neglect the basics: regular fries, crinkle cut fries, julienne fries, oven fries, steakhouse fries, super strings, etc. Export markets include Britain, France, West Germany, Spain, Sweden, Italy and even Greece.

McCain Foods, the Canadian giant based in Florenceville, New Brunswick, that has entered the European market on a major scale, has been emphasizing convenience items like oven fries and 1-2-3 fries that are quick to prepare. But in West Germany, at least, it is also marketing 1-2-3 rostis, pompoms and kraketten (croquettes). The latest company acquired by McCain was H.A. van Tuyl B.V. of Gameren, the Netherlands, which has been a major player in the West German market. With van Tuyl came its subsidiary, Potato International B.V. McCain has two other operations in the Netherlands, McCain Potatoes-Holland B.V. and Dutch Potato B.V.; under the aegis of McCain Foods Holland B.V., there are plants at Waspik, Hoofddorp, Lewedorp and Werkendam.

In Britain, at least, McCain is trying to capture a larger share of the children's potato specialty market, with the launch of Chuckles and Moonwaffles. Chuckles are crispy potato face shapes, molded from mashed potatoes. Moonwaffles, which were already one of the top ten potato items, have been relaunched in a new version said to have better flavor, texture and shape. Both children's items can be fried, baked or grilled straight from the freezer. Potato specialties are growing at a rate of 12% a year, compared to seven percent for the overall potato category.

Farm Frites, Oudenhoorn, the Netherlands, is marketing Pommes Lotto (Potato Digits) in the U.K., evidently also aimed at the children's specialty market. Potato Digits, as the name suggests, are numerals molded from potatoes -- a concept similar to Alpha Bites (a McCain product) in the United States. Farm Frites also offers Pommes Rissolees, Pommes Parisiennes, Potato Croquettes and Potato Waffles in Britain as well as on the continent. According to domestic processor Birds Eye Wall's Ltd., Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, fresh potato consumption in the U.K. is declining steadily as sales of frozen potato products gain -- sterling value was up an amazing 27.5% in 1988 to 47 million [pounds].

In the United States, potato consumption generally isn't growing much, according to a study by Packaged Facts, Inc., New York, N.Y. At 128.8 pounds per capita by 1995, the research group predicts, consumption will have increased only marginally from 123.9 pounds in 1988. Perhaps that is why $15 million a year is being spent to develop better potatoes, not only in the U.S., but at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. David A. Weiss, president of Packaged Facts, thinks the industry might better spend its money on potato marketing research, in hopes of finding an angle to improve the potato's image.

Frozen potato product sales, too, are perienially sluggish in the United States, and this may explain the rash of new products other than variations on fries. The latest seems to be Twice Baked Potatoes, an introduction from Ore Ida targeted, as the company's publicity put it, at "virtually untapped 4.9-billion-pound non-fried segment of the in-home potato market." A variation on stuffed potatoes, they come in cheddar cheese, butter and sour cream & chives varieties. They're all microwaveable, and billed as creating 72% incremental volume (as opposed to cannibalizing sales of other products).

Like other stuffed potato products, Twice Baked Potatoes come two to a 10-ounce package. The profits, at $5.88 a case, are said to be extraordinary, and Ore-Ida is promoting the introduction with all kinds of coupons, advertising and trade allowances. Ore-Ida has already broken into the non-fries segment with products like Golden Patties, a form of potato pancake, that come in 15-ounce boxes recently priced at $1.79. Unlike a lot of new products, Golden Patties are formulated for conventional ovens rather than microwaves.

Baked potato skins, an entirely different kind of product, are being marketed by Penobscot Frozen Foods. They are potato skins with some potato pulp still on them, and are also intended for baking. Recent pricing was $1.39 for a 10-ounce box. Golden brand potato pancakes from Old Fashioned Kitchens come 10 to a 12-ounce box, priced at about $1.93, and are interleaved with wax paper. Still another innovation of the last couple of years: MicroMagic microwave fries from J.R. Simplot in single-serve packs.

There have been a few private label introductions of microwave fries as well as stuffed potatoes. Most private label activity, of course, is in fries -- but the larger chains and wholesalers get into steak fries, wedges and the like as well as conventional and crinkle cut and the like. One wholesaler, Fleming Companies, Oklahoma City, Okla., has even brought out Letter Bites, a private label version of McCain's Alpha Bites, and reports they are doing well.

Do sweet potato products belong in a frozen potato roundup? Chef Francisco, Eugene, Ore., has introduced sweet potato nuggets and sticks as appetizers and bar snacks for the foodservice industry -- billed as "a healthier alternative to French fries, peanuts and potato skins." They can be baked or fried, the company says, and served with ranch, orange-yogurt or teriyaki sauce.

PHOTO : Curley Q's Fries and coated fries (Barbecue variety shown here) are two of the hottest new

PHOTO : categories in the United States, pioneered by Universal Frozen Foods.

PHOTO : Something new in mashed potato products: Ore-Ida's Twice Baked Potatoes in three varieties

PHOTO : (butter, cheddar cheese, and sour cream & chives).

PHOTO : Golden Patties, created for conventional oven baking, are another success story for

PHOTO : Ore-Ida.

PHOTO : From the northeastern fields of Maine come baked potato skins, a frozen potato treat put

PHOTO : out by Penobscot Frozen Foods.

PHOTO : Golden brand potato pancakes, inter-leaved in package, are a product of Old Fashioned

PHOTO : Kitchen, Lakewood, N.J.

PHOTO : S.A. Van Den Broeke, N.V., Belgium's largest potato processor, turns out 110,000 tons of

PHOTO : finished products a year from 300,000 tons of raw material at this plant in Leuze. Some

PHOTO : 75% of the output is in French fries, 20% in variety products and five percent in mashed

PHOTO : potatoes. The Leuze factory accounts for 75% of the company's production; the rest comes

PHOTO : from another plant at Waregem in Belgium.

PHOTO : Sweet potato nuggets and sticks are a new wrinkle for the foodservice industry from Chef

PHOTO : Francisco, Eugene, Ore.

PHOTO : Portions of a page from AVIKO catalog shows variety of potato products available in the

PHOTO : European market.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on S.A. Van Den Broeke, N.V. - Belgium's largest potato processor
Author:Pierce, John J.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Previous Article:Bonduelle looks forward to 1992 Europe, but doesn't think changes will be major.
Next Article:Just where is the sharp focus now in the British frozen food cabinet?

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