Britain's love affair with the humble potato is unbreakable and sales are booming. From pimping your potato to spicing your spuds, how can operators maximise sales? Richard McComb reports
They have been, and remain, a stalwart of the British diet; the shy, retiring star of the dinner plate.
Potatoes do not tend to grab the foodie headlines like pasta, polenta and ‘chipped' vegetables. And yet the humble spud remains the king of the carbs, immune to fads. For every portion of pasta, Britons consume three servings of potatoes; we are 10th in the world league table of potato consumption per head of the population.
Put simply, restaurants, caterers and foodservice bosses are missing a golden, and lucrative, opportunity if they ignore the British appetite for potatoes.
In fact, the growth in dining out, in particular at quick-service restaurants (QSRs), means the UK sector is in the midst of a spud boom. Servings of potatoes eaten out of home have increased by 10.7% year-on-year, according to AHDB Potatoes, the levy board representing the vegetable.
Of the total, 47% of out-of-home potato servings (excluding crisps) are purchased in QSRs. So is it just a boom time for the vegetable in the guise of fries, in hipster burger joints? Far from it. A closer look at the figures shows the biggest annual rise in potato consumption was in full-service restaurants, up 23.7% (compared with an increase of 10.6% in QSRs). So it is time for chefs in upscale venues to know their Maris Piper from their Mayan Gold, and know that both are good for chips.
Frites du Provence
The mighty chip
Chips are the driving force behind the growth in potato consumption in British food- service, accounting for almost three-quarters of all potato servings. An additional 136 million servings of chips or fries were bought by consumers in the year to March and AHDB Potatoes is working with the industry on a ‘Chip Skills' programme.
Ron Hickey, catering and on-trade sales director at Bestway Wholesale, advises operators to boost sales by offering consumers the chance to "trade up" their meal and "premiumise" chips and wedges with toppings and dips.
Hickey says: "It can be as simple as offering curly fries or spicy wedges, or giving mash an on-trend street food twist. With spicier flavours also increasingly popular with customers, offering sauces also has strong appeal."
"And don't keep roast potatoes for Sunday," he adds. "This perennially popular way to serve potatoes can be offered as a trade-up choice right throughout the week."
Food development chefs are revisiting some old favourites. That means the hasselback is back, according to Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct. Traditional varieties, as well as sweet potatoes, taste great when brushed with a herb and garlic-infused butter or oil and roasted until golden and crisp.
Chicken potato curry
Parsonage has been working on a potato salad using a colourful trio of truffle potatoes, sweet potatoes and a regular baby variety. "Tossed with peppery watercress and dressed with a buttermilk and mustard vinaigrette, they were truly memorable," he says.
Parsonage flags up the trend for Cornish potatoes, with Cornish Mids making a perfect alternative to Jersey Royals. Truffle potatoes, a purple French variety most commonly known as Vitelotte, works well in a potato salad.
"Boiling truffle potatoes and then cold-smoking them makes croquettes visually fantastic. The contrast of black skin and purple interior is very impressive," adds Parsonage.
"Whipped baked potatoes are another great innovation. Infuse the skins in milk and strain out, then add milk to the mash potato and put this through an espuma gun for a foam-like texture. It's a great way to really wow customers."
Tapping into the trend for premiumisation, potato product supplier Lamb Weston has launched Potato Dippers to encourage customer trade-ups with dishes such as chilli con carne.
Breakfast menus also offer opportunities to boost profits, says Nigel Phillips, country sales manager UK & Ireland for Lamb Weston. The company has extended its hash browns range to include new mini products. Hash Brown Minis come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from rounds to potato puffs.
Aviko breakfast jacket
Phillips says: "Rather than restricting their use to full English breakfasts, chefs can utilise the minis in more inventive ways, and incorporate them in breakfast burritos and one-pan eggs."
Chips are way out in front in terms of potato choices, followed by jacket potatoes, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes and wedges/skins. The latter, though, has seen the biggest growth, up 22.4% on the previous year.
To satisfy the demand, one size of potato most definitely doesn't fit all, says Nic Townsend, marketing manager UK and Ireland for Farm Frites.
"We work on a growing schedule which uses different potato varieties at different periods for different products. This is due to potato varieties not being available all year round and processing characteristics of the varieties changing during the season," says Townsend.
For thicker fries, Farm Frites uses four main varieties: Premiere, Miranda, Innovator and Ramos, which produce a crisp external texture while being fluffy on the inside. For thinner cut and speciality ranges, it adds Felsina, Markies, Bintje and Asterix, which offer the flavour, crispiness and length preferred in the fast food market.
Aviko puy lentil, feta and beetroot jacket with rocket
Mixing things up
Catherine Rigg, McCain Foods senior product manager, warns that chips are critical to customers' meal experiences. It means product upgrades and toppings are reaping rewards for canny operators.
Rigg explains: "Topped chips are on-trend, easy to prepare and enable you to charge a premium price for very little additional outlay. It's also a simple way to add variety and excitement to the menu.
"If you're not sure whether your customers will go for it, start with a simple option, such as cheese, or a seasoning such as rosemary salt, to gauge feedback before developing the offer."
However, Rigg says the easiest way to increase profit with little additional labour is to offer a second premium chip option at a higher price. Thin-cut fries or those with the skin on are popular, such as McCain Skin-on Julienne, and McCain Sweet Potato Fries are another alternative.
Also consider offering a gluten-free product, such as McCain's relaunched Menu Signatures Traditional Chips, Sweet Potato Fries and Gourmet Chips.
Lamb Weston potato dippers
Aviko is encouraging operators to think beyond standard cheese and beans as jacket potato accompaniments with the launch of its new Top That! recipe book. Available to download free, the book provides tips on how operators can give jackets a new lease of life, including recipes for a breakfast jacket and a puy lentil, feta and beetroot jacket with rocket.
Mohammed Essa, Aviko general manager, says: "It's easy to get stuck in a rut and serve regular toppings such as tuna mayonnaise, but consumers want to be offered more choice."
Aviko's new range is available frozen in large and extra-large sizes. The British jackets are slow-baked in advance and are ready to simply heat, top and serve. They are suitable for oven, combi-steamer or microwave heating.
Helen Evans, director of business development for New Covent Garden Market, highlights the emergence of two trends: chefs' desire to innovate with new varieties, counterpointed by a resurgence of interest in heritage varieties.
Bestway premium sausage and mash
The pull of Peru
The two collide in the foodservice industry's growing appetite for Peruvian potatoes. Peru is home to a vast variety of potatoes, where microclimates create diverse flavours. Evans says: "The introduction of Peruvian potatoes to the UK has contributed to a popularity boom for Peruvian cooking, and a growing interest in restaurants such as Ceviche and Lima in London."
Robert Ortiz, head chef of Lima in Fitzrovia, London, is experimenting with varieties of potatoes that are new to the UK, such as Oca, which is traditionally grown in Peru and Bolivia but is now being cultivated in Oxfordshire and supplied through New Covent Garden Market. The season lasts for five months, starting in May, and the potato lends itself to baking, roasting and purée preparations.
With a bright yellow or pink hue, Oca adds visual appeal to any dish. It is currently on the Lima menu in a number of guises, including in a main dish of beef pachamanca with yellow potato purée, cow's milk and AjÁ panca juice and in a starter of scallop causa (yellow potato, scallops, red quinoa and AjÁ Limo).
Ortiz says: "Oca is very interesting and can be used for salads, sliced to decorate dishes, baked or puréed. We are using it quite a lot as a garnish and I'm also working on turning it into a gnocchi as I think it will be very colourful."
Rafael Casin is executive chef at Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba in Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas and champions iced native potatoes, iced at 4,000 metres above sea level to produce a "particular texture and one-of-a-kind flavour".
Dev Biswal, head chef and managing director of the Ambrette restaurants in Kent, believes variety is the spice of life. He uses Yukon Gold for roasts, Desiree for dosa fillings and dauphinoise, and Maris Piper for fondant potatoes and as a good all-rounders.
"When choosing which potato variety to use for a dish, I consider the cooking method I will use and the sugar content of the potato," says Biswal.
"My top tip for potato preparation would be to boil the potatoes a day before you intend to cook your dish, as this will produce a better result. I have noticed a reduction in the stickiness and starchiness compared to potatoes cooked the same day."
Chef Marco Hall, of the Hope in Glasgow, adds a final word on chips: "We all love chips. As long as you have a nice potato to start with and you cook them right, you can't go wrong."
Bestway roast potatoes
Producers and suppliers
Fresh Direct Group