Sexing up the Spud

Shunned by the government’s 5-a-day scheme and marginalised by the rise of its trendier cousin the chip, the plain old potato is in danger of falling out of favour in foodservice. Can stronger innovation and better marketing hold the key to the spud’s long-term prosperity? David Burrows reports.

It is the world’s fourth most important food crop and forms 16% of meals out of the home with 1.87 billion servings [Potato Council] in Britain each year. There’s no doubt the humble potato has an enviable CV and is incredibly important to the foodservice sector.

What has been in doubt is its role in our diet. Take a look at the Government’s recommendations on what counts towards 5-a-day and top of the pile is ‘fresh fruit and vegetables’. Those with a vested interest in the potato market would have liked the list to have stopped there, but it doesn’t – there’s a whole section on why potatoes don’t count, even though they have been included in similar schemes in the US, France and Australia – and even though they are technically vegetables.

Or are they? Reacting to pressure when the 5-a-day scheme was first launched in 2003, one Junior Health Minister claimed that potatoes weren’t vegetables: “Potatoes provide mainly carbohydrate in the form of starch whereas foods classified as fruit and vegetables provide much less carbohydrates,” wrote Melanie Johnson. Other MPs said her claim was farcical, pointing to the potato’s vitamin and nutrient content and low calorie levels. “I’m not suggesting we should all eat lots of chips, but what’s wrong with baked potatoes?” said Tory MP Christopher Chope at the time.

The debate was reignited earlier this year when the potato industry stepped up pressure on the Department of Health to recognise fresh spuds under the five-a-day scheme after research revealed most consumers already believe the vegetable to be eligible.
The counter argument is that including potatoes would encourage consumers to eat more chips. And herein lies the problem. Brits love chips: we eat more chips out of home than sandwiches and over 70% of the potatoes we eat come as chips. What’s more, British foodservice companies love them too: chips make up 40% of a platefill, yet just 10% of the cost [McCain research].

“No matter what the outlet is, chips continue to offer caterers ease of preparation, platefill and, most importantly, value for money,” explains Mohammed Essa, Aviko general manager UK and Ireland. Indeed, based on a side of chips from Aviko, caterers can profit by 1,215% on every portion served.

With those kinds of margins, it’s hardly surprising that the chip dominates the potato category. But is the foodservice sector over-reliant on them? Not so, says Lindsay Winser, 3663 communications controller. “While chips are often seen on the menu in most outlets, it’s also commonplace for other ‘healthier’ formats of potatoes to be offered as an alternative,” she points out. “So it’s a customer-driven choice to purchase chips, as opposed to the sector being reliant on them.”

There is a criticism, however, that not enough is being done to push the healthier formats, like jacket potatoes or oven-baked wedges. Some even suggest that innovation has dried up given the potato’s role as a core staple. “Rice and pasta are here to stay and have definitely taken a share of the market, so we need to look at ways to make the humble potato more marketable,” says Ian Nottage, Reynolds chef director.

With chefs now also looking at pulses like quinoa, pearl barley and bulgar wheat as a point of difference, the potato is under more threat than ever. “If you’re a fresh potato supplier, the main challenge is to ensure that chefs and menu planners keep them on the menu,” says Douglas Bell, Greenvale business development manager. “Competition is rife from frozen potatoes and alternative dishes.”

In retail, some of the brands are already investing heavily to try and sex the potato up. Albert Bartlett is the most prominent to date, having spent £3m on a campaign for its Rooster brand which was spear-headed on TV by Marcia Cross – star of Desperate Housewives – and on pack by Michel Roux and Andrew Fairlie.

Activity in foodservice has been less ‘noisy’, but there are shoots of innovation. Fenmarc, for instance, recently launched its Rudolph variety – a premium-red maincrop potato that “caters for all tastes” according to TV chef Rachel Green. Julian Willis is in charge of commercial supply at Fenmarc: “Other products may be getting more ‘noise’ coverage [but] potatoes are still used for the most meal occasions. Our job is to ensure consistency of supply, size and taste … this then allows the chefs to innovate with different styles and meal usages – rather than pigeon-holing many varieties to particular usages. There is plenty of scope [for innovation but] suppliers and chefs need to work together.”

Others also believe in close collaboration to help invigorate the potato, with the NPD and development chefs at the supplier end working with the NPD and development chefs from foodservice companies. “There is room to get the right potato for the job,” says QV Foods sales and marketing director, Simon Martin. “Fit-for-purpose potatoes that have been grown, stored and selected to excel in particular dishes have the potential to transform the eating experience, while prepared potatoes can offer invaluable shortcuts to overworked chefs.”

Mash, for instance, is slowly on the increase and can tick boxes with regard to healthy eating. The format is being used to bring spuds to the 5-a-day party, with potato mash in combination with other vegetables, like swede or carrots that are classified as part of 5-a-day, becoming particularly popular in pubs. ‘Skin on’ and flavoured potato wedges are also providing a healthy, versatile alternative to chips.

But what about those margins? Well, according to Aviko’s Essa, using speciality potato products is a “sure fire way to make money”. He explains: “Not only will side dishes such as wedges, creamy mash and potato gratin open up a wider variety of choice to customers, they could also command a much more premium price point. In fact, based on the average price for a serving of wedges, caterers could stand to double their gross profit per serving.”

The potato’s reputation has been chipped away over the years, but volumes have remained relatively steady. Only with some innovation will the potato continue to hold its own – regardless of whether it’s part of the 5-a-day or not.