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Totally Tuber.

Byline: Jennifer Strailey

Innovative introductions and preparations spark interest in all sorts of spuds.

Potatoes are a dietary mainstay in cultures around the globe. Nutritious, versatile and satisfying, they have long been the culinary backbone of mealtime. But despite our fondness for this time-honored vegetable, somewhere along the way, consumers began to find potatoes predictable.

To spring shoppers from this epicurean ennui, industry organizations, supermarkets and suppliers alike are bringing panache to the potato category through inspired campaigns and flavorful new product introductions.

Variety, more pronounced than ever before, is further fueling sales. Value-added products, petite potatoes, organics and a colorful array of taters are sparking renewed interest and enthusiasm in the category.

"Over the latest 52 weeks ending June 27, 2015, there were some bright spots in the potato category, including increases in sales of specialty potatoes like medley packs, purple and yellow varieties, and growth in both more-than-10-pound and 8-pound package sizes," notes Sarah Reece of the Denver-based United States Potato Board (USPB). "We continue to see good growth in organics, while petite potatoes continued to increase their share of the category, with growth in both volume and value."

According to the USPB's 2015 "Attitudes and Usage" study, potatoes are the most popular starch, served significantly more often than rice, pasta or other vegetable dishes. Despite their popularity and recent sales gains, however, the overall potato category saw a decline of 4.2 percent in dollars and 1.6 percent in volume sales for the 52 weeks ending June 27, according to Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts.

Will the spate of spud-related campaigns and new product introductions help taters gain more traction in 2016?

Recipe Revolution

This fall, the USPB is launching a campaign that seeks to recast potatoes from a supporting player to a star of the culinary stage. With a focus on creative preparations, the campaign will target a group the board calls "food enthusiasts."

"Food enthusiasts are unique in that they want to be involved with food and cooking as a social and creative outlet," explains Kim Breshears, USPB marketing program director. "They are very visually engaged with food, searching for recipes from a variety of sources to use as a launch pad for experimentation."

Through a national consumer segmentation study, the USPB found that food enthusiasts represent a significant percentage of the population, and are defined by their love and overall involvement with food, as well as their desire to explore culinary creations from across the globe.

The board's new consumer marketing campaign "celebrates the culinary wonder of potatoes," says Breshears. "The campaign encourages consumers to let their imagination run free, since there is no limit to cuisine, flavors or preparations that can be explored with potatoes."

As part of the campaign, the USPB is creating new recipes featuring global flavors and preparation techniques.

"Ethnic/street-inspired flavors and cuisines are the leading trend in foodservice," observes Breshears." Ethnic-inspired items are prominent across breakfast, appetizers, main dishes and kids' dishes, and are being embraced at home as well. Potatoes are excellent flavor carriers and work with any cuisine."

International Idahos

Tempting tater recipes are equally important to the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), in Eagle, Idaho. The IPC's searchable recipe database features more than 1,000 ways to prepare potatoes, from comfort foods to dishes with international flair.

The commission recently upgraded its website with a Pinterest-inspired design that now includes luscious-looking photos of potato dishes from around the world. This past summer, the IPC added 10 new Latin-inspired potato salad recipes to its database, which also features heart-healthy and gluten-free categories.

According to the commission, since the launch of the website, more than half of all visitors have spent time perusing potato recipes.

"Consumers, particularly Millennials, are learning more potato preparations, and they're more interested in food in general," observes Seth Pemsler, VP retail/international for the IPC.

Specialties and seasonal introductions are also generating consumer interest.

"Historically, the coasts were more innovative with specialty varieties, but that's changing," asserts Pemsler. "All throughout the country, we're seeing lots of different potatoes on the shelves. The trend is more innovative, new potato products."

Last month, the IPC wrapped up its fourth installment of The Big Idaho Potato Truck Tour. The promotion, which features a giant Idaho spud on wheels, took the Idaho potato message across the country, covering some 22,000 miles, and also had a charitable component. According to Pemsler, the IPC has committed to a fifth year of the tour, which will begin April/May 2016.

In conjunction with the campaign, the IPC officially launched a national television ad campaign on Oct. 1. The campaign features Mark, billed as "A Real Idaho Potato Farmer," searching for his truck. The IPC is running the TV spots on the Food Network and during CNN news programs.

Additionally, earlier this month, the commission introduced a Buy, Get, Give coupon promotion that invites consumers to buy any two Country Crock 45-ounce spreads and receive a free bag of Idaho potatoes up to $2. The IPC will give a bag of potatoes to Feeding America for each coupon redeemed up to 40,000 5-pound bags. The promotion runs through Nov. 30.

Small Spuds a Big Hit

As its name suggests, The Little Potato Co., in Edmonton, Alberta, knows something about petite potatoes. CEO and creamer potato expert Angela Santiago is especially excited about the company's newest introduction, Chilean Splash.

Originally bred in Chile, the variety features a striking bright-purple skin and yellow flesh with purple streaks. The company describes the new potato as well balanced, with a slightly exotic flavor.

The Little Potato Co. is also launching a new and improved Three Cheese microwave-ready creamer potato product. The 1-pound package contains fresh creamer potatoes and an all-natural seasoning packet. The potatoes can be prepared in just five minutes.

In addition to launching new products that help families to make flavorful and fresh produce in a flash, The Little Potato Co. is committed to encouraging families to cook together. Its recently introduced Little Chef program focuses on culinary tips and recipes designed to appeal to children and their families.

"Families don't have a lot of time to cook together," observes Santiago. "It's about creating memories in the kitchen. Studies show that kids who are encouraged to cook and eat healthfully at a young age will continue to do so later in life."

When it comes to what's hot, Santiago sees potatoes fitting into the healthy-eating trend -- with a twist. "We're spending a lot more time on the perimeter of the supermarket, and we're eating more fresh foods," she notes. "Consumers have a deep-seated love of potatoes, but they got bored. They want more excitement from potatoes, and trendy, modern ideas for preparing them."

Leveraging two major potato trends -- smaller sizes and convenience -- Alsum Farms & Produce, of Friesland, Wis., recently debuted Fast & Fresh! Microwave-Ready Russet Potatoes.

Available year-round, Alsum Farms' 12-ounce package features fresh baby russet potatoes that are triple-washed and ready to cook in five minutes or less.

"Microwave-Ready Russet Potatoes bring fresh, convenient potato solutions to the time-starved consumer," affirms Heidi Alsum-Randall, Alsum Farms & Produce national sales and marketing manager.

Sensational Sweet Potatoes

A celebrated superfood, sweet potatoes are increasingly gaining in popularity with consumers. Meanwhile, suppliers like Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce are further enticing shoppers with convenience.

Nash recently introduced a 1.5-pound steamable bag of petite sweets. The bag's contents are ready to serve after eight minutes in the microwave. Each bag contains five to six small sweet potatoes that have been triple-washed.

"This goes hand in hand with the top trends we have seen in sweet potatoes," says Laura Hearn, Nash Produce marketing and business development director. "Value-added convenience items have been a huge hitter in grocery. Consumers have demanded quick, easy and healthy items that they can prepare for meals."

Nash has also witnessed growing demand for more specialty potato products, including smaller fingerlings, new varietals and innovative packaging. "Consumers seem to have an interest in being able to try new things and experiment with fresh produce products," she adds.

Hearn believes that the well-established health benefits of sweet potatoes have helped to spotlight these spuds. "Nutrition is a huge growth driver," she asserts. "People truly see the value of eating better. When eaten with the skin on, a medium sweet potato has over four times the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, which plays a vital role in vision, bone development and immune function. They are also a fantastic source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C and beta carotene, to name a few."

Routinely touted for its nutritional prowess and low glycemic index by nutritionists, TV talkshow hosts and celebrity chefs, the sweet potato is finally getting its due, according to George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. Inc. (WEB), in Chadbourn, N.C.

In business since 1935, WEB grows more than 3,500 acres of sweet potatoes around the country. The company, which also packages sweet potatoes for Green Giant Fresh, has seen demand for sweet potatoes continue to grow, especially for its smaller-profile Green Giant Fresh Petite Steamable sweet potatoes in a microwavable bag, and its Fingerling Sweet Potatoes.

"Sales of our fingerlings have grown 3,000 percent in the past four years," notes Wooten, who adds that they've have taken off in both the retail and foodservice channels. WEB offers 10-, 20- and 40-pound boxes for retail.

As part of the continuing expansion of its steamer program, the company will air a new cable television promotion on Nov. 3 that features a chef talking about quick sweet potato bites.

"The demand for sweet potatoes continues to grow, and acreage is increasing based on demand," observes Wooten. "In 2014, North Carolina had more acres planted to sweet potatoes than it has in the last 50 years." Acreage was higher in the first half of the last century, because yields were lower.

Organic Potatoes

Organic potato production is on the rise, reports RPE Inc., a Bancroft, Wis.-based year-round grower/shipper of potatoes and onions, which recently expanded its potato offerings with Oddball Organics.

Since last year, RPE's cooperative growers saw a 47 percent acreage increase in organic potatoes in Wisconsin alone.

Increased production also means more taters with odd shapes and minor skin blemishes. These less-than-picture-perfect (though still tasty) tubers, considered non-market-grade potatoes, are often thrown out, notes RPE, which hopes to change things with Oddball Organics.

"Many of these potatoes would have been discarded solely because they were misshapen," says RPE President and CEO Russell Wysocki. "RPE, committed to responsible farming, is consistently working on saving our customers money as well as pushing toward the reduction of waste currently in the potato industry."

Available in several varieties, including russet, red and gold potatoes, Oddball Organics come in 3-pound poly bags, mesh bags or bulk, as well as display-ready cartons.

Colorful Crops

From sweet potatoes to purple potatoes to red-skin varieties, color is taking the potato category by storm. Black Gold Farms, of Grand Forks, N.D., has expanded upon its traditionally grown varieties of red potatoes with several vibrant introductions.

One of its new potato offerings is Sangres, a variety that Black Gold Farms selected for its ability to maintain quality and color through the winter. The company is also growing Dakota Ruby Red, a variety developed at North Dakota State University that yields a consistently round shape, ruby-red color and smooth skin.

Additionally, Black Gold Farms has revealed major investments in its East Grand Forks, Minn.-based packing facility, which it believes will result in elevated quality and productivity.

"The campaign encourages consumers to let their imagination run free, since there is no limit to cuisine, flavors or preparations that can be explored with potatoes."

--Kim Breshears, United States Potato Board

"Consumers, particularly Millennials, are learning more potato preparations, and they're more interested in food in general."

--Seth Pemsler, Idaho Potato Commission

Merchandising and Signage

With more color, varieties and sizes than ever before, how can supermarkets capitalize on the increasingly dynamic potato category?

"We recommend that retailers merchandise all potatoes together to showcase the full range of offerings available," says Sarah Reece of the Denver-based United States Potato Board (USPB). Within this merchandising strategy, potatoes should be organized by type and size, as opposed to bag and bulk, she adds.

To make the most of specialty potatoes, place them first in the shopper traffic flow to generate impulse purchases, advises Reece. "Potatoes should never be displayed on the wet rack, because misting can cause the potatoes to break down faster," she warns, adding, "We also recommend that retailers merchandise potatoes outside the produce department with complementary meal elements to create additional awareness."

When it comes to signage, the USPB has found that educating shoppers makes a difference. "Signage should provide consumers with potato preparation ideas and nutritional benefits, including meal solutions with specific recipes," notes Reece. "It's important to educate shoppers on the differing qualities of potato types, celebrating their uniqueness and encouraging the trial of new/additional types."
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Author:Strailey, Jennifer
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2015
Words:2437
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