Chip Week heralds an event-packed summer that will shine a spotlight on the nation's favourite food. Angela Frewin looks at some ways caterers can get maximum profit from their chips
Brits love chips - we munch through nearly three billion meals with chips each year. They are, according to the Potato Council, the most common food eaten out of the home and account for nearly three-quarters of all potato dishes served in the food service sector - most notably in quick-service restaurants and pubs.
And Alan Todd, catering development manager at Punch Taverns, reckons 2012 will be "a big year for chips" as the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee suck in an influx of tourists eager to sample traditional British pub food culture, while the UEFA Euro 2012 football championships will help boot up sales of chips with a pint.
So getting involved in the Potato Council's annual Chip Week gives caterers a great opportunity to raise the bar on their chip offer in readiness for this bonanza.
Chips are a valuable tool in the caterer's armoury - they are quick to cook, incredibly versatile and highly profitable.
"Chips are great on their own, can help up-sell a lunchtime sandwich, accompany the most expensive of steaks or enhance a simple piece of battered fish. They are the versatile side that caterers should ignore at their peril," says Mohammed Essa, general manager UK and Ireland for supplier Aviko.
"Not only are chips loved by people of all ages across Britain, they also offer real value for money. For example, based on an average price for a side of chips, caterers can profit by a phenomenal £2.20 on each portion served."
Donna Rowbottom, marketing manager at McCain Foods, agrees. She points out that chips represent 40% of platefill yet just 10% of cost, yielding profit margins of up to 90%.
But chips are so ubiquitous, there is a danger of overlooking them in favour of "hero" foods such as steaks. Research by McCain found operators frequently failed to focus on "quality and presentation" - bad news when 85% of consumers claim they would not return to an outlet that served unappetising chips.
McCain's report revealed that customers expect chips to be "natural, regular-shaped, golden, crispy and hot". Their pet hate was pale, bland, soggy chips that went cold too quickly.
Picking the most appropriate varieties of potatoes or ready-made chips and paying close attention to oil and fryer maintenance and cooking technique are all vital ingredients for the perfect chip.
Suppliers offer an almost bewildering profusion of standard and premium shapes and sizes - such as shoestring, chunky, crinkle, lattice, curly, wedges, extra-long and skin-on - allowing operators to cater for differing guest preferences, style of service, and dishes.
As a rough rule of thumb, rapid-cooking thin fries are great for fast-food restaurants, with kid's menus and with delicately-flavoured dishes, while chunkier cuts work better with more robust, meatier flavours. Thick, extra-long or larger shapes can offer a higher yield per pack than conventional cuts because of their greater plate coverage, while skin-on varieties cater to the growing demand for rustic, home-made-style chips - and provide extra crunch.
Heat retention is an important consideration in slower-paced environments. Customer complaints of limp, lukewarm chips at Le Bistrot Pierre Restaurants were traced, says executive development chef Ajay Barak, to the relaxed atmosphere that encouraged slower eating. His solution was Lamb Weston's Stealth Fries, where the potato variety and a transparent coating of batter provided five times the holding time of normal fries.
The sheer plethora of options allows caterers to develop a dedicated "chip menu" along the lines of the barista menu offered in coffee shops, suggests Casper Gesthuizen, trade marketer for North-west Europe and UK at Lamb Weston.
Allowing customers to choose their personal favourites from a variety of chip types will add interest and give caterers the chance to upsell to more premium-priced lines.
An emerging trend is consumers' growing appetite for spicy flavours. Punch Taverns has been working with seasonings specialist Schwartz for Chef to use spices to add interest and value to dishes at a minimal cost.
According to Todd, sprinkling chips with just 5p-worth of seasoning before serving allows operators to boost the selling price of a standard portion by 50%, from £1 to £1.50. Fiery flavour saviours such as Piri Piri, Blackened Cajun and BBQ Smoky Mesquite have proved the biggest hits with customers - and they can also be used to spice up chip dips and sauces.
Jazzing up the presentation can also help maximise profits at little extra cost. Todd suggests serving a gourmet burger or steak meal on a stylish wooden or stone board with the chips in a mini fryer basket. This approach will add the "wow" factor and enable caterers to add up to £3 to the price of a £4.95 meal, says Todd.
A high starch/low water ratio make floury potatoes ideal for making crispy chips with fluffy, light interiors.
Prime chipping potatoes include King Edward, Rooster, Sante, Maris Piper, Markies, Victoria, Cabaret and Premier. Accord, Carlingford and Romano are great for wedges.
Store spuds in a frost-free area away from direct sunlight between 5Â°C and 10Â°C. They bruise easily so handle with care. Cold storage can covert the starches into sugars, resulting in dark brown, sweeter chips.
Some fine-dining outlets are now serving celeriac or light beetroot chips, but the orange-fleshed sweet potato fry has made the biggest splash in the mainstream market. Lamb Weston estimates they can command a 20-30% mark-up against conventional chips.
Chilled chips fry faster than frozen (and need less cooking and heat) so Aviko's Essa recommends them for high-volume operators. Frozen chips offer a longer shelf life of up to 24 months, compared with 21 days for chilled.
â- Chips and French fries accounted for 71.5% (or 1,335 million servings) of the total out-of-home consumption of potato products in the year to 30 September 2011 - 49 million servings up on the previous year. Potato wedges/skin-on varieties represented another 3.5% (63 million servings).
â- Chips accompany 14.4% of quick-service restaurant meals and 21.3% of pub meals (the average is 12.1% for all out-of-home meals).
â- 31% of chips are eaten with meat, 30.9% with burgers and 13.2% with fish.
â- Fish and chip shops sell more than 200 million meals a year
Source: The Potato Council
Chip cooking tips
â- Cook in oil pre-heated to 170Â°C-180Â°C for two to three minutes.
â- Don't overload the basket - it boosts fat absorption. Farm Frites' Townsend recommends half-filling the basket using, say, 10kg fries to 10 litres of oil.
â- Shake the basket regularly and drain well when cooked to reduce fat absorption by 20% and keep chips crispy.
â- Leeds University researchers found that, while under- or lightly-cooked chips emitted three simple scents, twice-fried chips had a more complex profile of nine aromas that included bitter cocoa, butterscotch, cheese, potatoes, onions, flowers - and even ironing boards.
"Poor cleaning and maintenance will impair the overall taste of your chips and may result in increased equipment downtime," warns Shad Williams, spokesman for equipment supplier Alliance Online. He expects a good fryer to last at least five years.
Paul Hickman, development chef at Lincat, recommends a fryer that is big and powerful enough to avoid overloading the basket and offers fast heat recovery times to keep cooking time and oil absorption down. Fryers with built-in filtration can extend cooking life by up to 75%.
Lard, beef or pork dripping and goose fat make tasty and crispy chips, but the focus has shifted to vegetable oils such as rapeseed and sunflower with healthier fat compositions.
Contract caterer Charlton House has recently introduced Essent Oil, a healthier new-generation rapeseed variety from R-Oil. Alongside lower saturated fat levels (one-third of sunflower and less than half of olive or corn oil), Essent Oil has reduced levels of Omega 6 fatty acids to re-establish the lost balance with the now over-consumed Omega 3s.
"Oil will affect the taste, colour, appearance and quality of your fries," warns Lamb Weston's Gesthuizen, so it is important to filter daily. Oil monitors will ensure good oil is not discarded prematurely with the bad.
AAK, which has just launched a training DVD on good oil management, says its high-performance Prep ZT Long Life oils will last two-and-a-half times longer than standard extended oils while offering low absorption, no hydrogenated fats, and less than 1% of trans fats.
From a health point of view: â- Chilled and frozen chips use less oil and energy than hand-cut chips.
â- Oven-baked chips contain just 5% fat (Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson both favour coating them with olive oil).
â- Thin chips absorb 1.5 times more fat than chunky chips.
AAK 01482 332100 www.prepoils.co.uk
Aviko 01442 239536 www.aviko.comFarm Frites 01452 415845 www.farmfrites.co.uk
Lamb Weston 0800 963962 www.lambweston.com
Lincat 01522 875500 www.lincat.co.uk
McCain Foods 0800 146573 www.mccain.co.uk
Schwartz for Chef 0808 100 0363 www.schwartzforchef.com