Our love affair with potatoes is as strong as ever, with chips still the dominant form across all channels, according to recent research. But what should caterers be offering on their menus to keep customers interested and boost sales? Diane Lane reports.
The increasingly adventurous palate of the UK diner has readily embraced the likes of pasta, rice and noodles over the years but there's no getting away from the fact that we Brits still love our potatoes.
According to the Potato Council report Behind the Menu - Potatoes in Foodservice, potatoes, in one form or other, are served with 45% of meals eaten out of home and sales are estimated to be worth £2.51b. It also identifies chips as the dominant potato serving across all channels, accounting for 85% of volume and 83% of value.
The popularity of chips is backed up by Menurama data from Horizons, a database of nationwide menus from restaurants, hotels and pubs, which identifies chips, jackets, skins, roast and mash as the top five potato dishes offered as side orders.
In analysing trends over the last three years, Paul Backman, development executive at Horizons, says: "The overall number of potato dishes remained static over the three years. Chips remain equally popular, while the frequency of jacket potatoes and potato wedges has fallen significantly and potato skins slightly."
Marie Medhurst, sales and marketing director of Farmhouse Potato Bakers, offers a possible explanation and solution as far as jacket potatoes are concerned, although she is convinced that there's a trend towards offering jackets as an alternative to chips. She says: "Jacket potatoes are popular as a healthier alternative to chips, but are associated with long baking times and potential for waste because fresh potatoes deteriorate in storage and baking them in advance means having to predict how many will be ordered. The availability of frozen, microwavable fully-baked jacket potatoes overcomes these issues."
Research carried out by Reed Business Insight for Aviko certainly indicates that healthier potato offerings are still important to the marketplace, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying they offer "healthier potato options" on their menus.
It also shows an increase in those using sunflower oil to prepare chips, leading Aviko to predict that while classic potato dishes such as mash, hash browns, chips and wedges still remain popular, operators will increasingly want to address the health issue with steps such as oven preparation and reduced salt and fat content.
Adrian Greaves, associate director, McCain Foodservice, agrees that chips continue to top the leaderboard but warns caterers not to overlook the quality issue when sourcing them. He says: "Chips are the nation's favourite food and we expect this to continue for a long time to come. However, they have become such an integral part of caterers' menus that many often overlook the importance of serving a quality chip. Research shows that 85% of consumers say having bad chips would ruin their meal and stop them returning to a food outlet."
Looking forward, Greaves predicts that quality, variety and cost will be the key priorities for caterers throughout 2010.
"Concerns will focus on maximising profit without taking too many risks with existing food menus," he says. "Conversations with our customers indicate that they are looking to serve tried and tested potato dishes, with contemporary twists that add variety to a menu."
Adding variety to the potato offering is something Phil Cumming, UK sales and marketing director at Lamb Weston, advocates too.
"Customers today expect a choice of at least three or four different potato accompaniments with their meal; offering chips alone is not enough and will leave customers disappointed," he says.
"Adding some excitement to your menu with a range of new and intriguing potato dishes will keep customers interested and even help boost sales, as tables order extra dishes to try and share.
"Whether it's chips, roast potatoes, mash or potato gratin, the humble potato lends itself to a wide variety of exciting concepts and is an essential menu staple, whatever the outlet, from fine dining to education, pubs to quick service. And while there will always be national favourites such as steak and chunky chips, or sausages and fluffy mashed potato, there are still plenty of options on the market to help operators keep their potato offering exciting."
When it comes to price, Menurama data finds that potato skins command the highest prices (including all the toppings or "loaded" options such as cheese, barbecue chicken or chilli con carne) at £3.90, followed by patatas bravas (usually a tapas dish) at £3.83 and jacket potatoes (including all the filling options such as cheese, baked beans and so on) at £3.51.
Aviko 01442 239536
Farmhouse Potato Bakers 01262 605650
Lamb Weston 0800 963962
McCain 0800 146573
020 8349 0162
Potato Council 02476 692051
Reed Business Insight 020 8652 8564