Mann Packing Co. Inc., of Salinas, CA, is enjoying considerable success with its fresh-cut sweet potato line. “ Our fresh-cut sweet potatoes are fresh, washed, ready-to-cook cubes or crinkle-cut spears, packaged in microwaveable bags,” describes Elena Hernandez, marketing and communications specialist.
Other producers are also having success with value-added sweet potatoes that offer greater convenience. “Our individual microwave sweet potatoes are growing daily,” reveals Mike Kemp, business analyst for Market Fresh, in Nixa, MO. “More and more consumers are finding this is an easy, quick solution with a healthy kick.”
But some producers report mixed results with the value-added sweet potato category. “The steamables, tray packs, individually wrapped sweet potatoes are all very significant to today’s consumer, but the fresh-cut is not,” counters George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., headquartered in Chadbourn, NC.
Foodservice, however, are piquing consumer interest in sweet potato fries. “People go to fast food restaurants and see sweet potato fries, and they want to try them at home, too,” says Jimmy Burch Sr., partner in Burch Farms, located in Faison, NC.
Some retailers report that fresh-cut products are an important part of their increased sweet potato sales. “A lot of the increase in sweet potatoes is because of the restaurants, pre-cut sweet potato fries and the cubed sweet potatoes; we carry those two in the fresh-cut section,” says Ed Osowski, director of produce at Martin’s Supermarkets, a 21-unit chain located in South Bend, IN.
The sweet potato fry looks to have a significant role in the continuing increase in demand for sweet potatoes. “The advent of the sweet potato fry, and of restaurants serving them, has assisted in increasing demand, agrees Sue Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
The divergence of opinion could have to do with the learning curve in creating fresh-cut sweet potato products that catches consumers’ eyes, and earns their approval. “Fresh-cut sweet potato sales were lagging behind the spike seen in frozen sweet potato sales,” admits Hernandez. “As a result, Mann Packing conducted consumer research to find out how the situation could be remedied. Consumers revealed they eat sweet potatoes at home and in restaurants, but they weren’t aware that fresh-cut sweet potatoes existed, were preservative-free compared to their frozen counterparts, or where to find them in stores.”
It also took some work to come up with fresh-cut sweet potatoes with an attention-getting appearance. “When consumers saw a package of fresh-cut sweet potatoes, they said they looked like carrots, so we decided to change the cut of the sweet potatoes to a crinkle-style, add more information on pack, and activate more direct-to-consumer communication activities to increase awareness for the product,” explains Hernandez. “Then crinkle-cut helps make the sweet potatoes resemble French fries, and a plate shot on the package front includes graphics that communicate immediate usage ideas and helps further identity the product.”
These fresh-cut sweet potatoes do not belong near the other sweet potatoes, and should be displayed instead with the other convenience vegetables. “We recommend stocking our fresh-cut sweet potatoes as part of the overall convenience veg display in the produce department,” suggests Hernandez.