The price of potato products is on the increase, causing a choice headache for caterers - fresh or frozen; side or main? John Porter looks at the options
Sometimes dismissed as the "humble spud", there's very little that's humble about the price of prepared potato products currently. Official Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that in the year to July 2011, the cost of potato products increased by 10.7%.
Given that the same ONS figures show the price of unprocessed potatoes actually fell by 2.1% across the same period, on the face of it the answer for caterers would seem to be simple - buy a large sack of spuds and a good potato peeler, and get to work making your own potato dishes.
The reality, of course, is more complex. The inflation rate for unprocessed potatoes has fallen each month since April this year, when it was running at 7.6%, coming down as supplies of what is predicted to a record potato harvest across Europe this year arrive in wholesalers. The price can be expected to start rising again in the New Year as the 2011 crop runs down.
For caterers, there are other factors to consider, including the time and cost of the labour needed to prepare potato dishes in the kitchen. The storage space needed for unprocessed potatoes is also an issue for many businesses, as is fluctuating customer demand which makes cooking frozen or chilled pre-portioned potato products to order a better option.
Research commissioned by McCain suggests that the levels of profitability which can be achieved using frozen chips are broadly higher when compared with preparing them freshly. The calculation factors in a time/cost benefit delivered through the reduction of labour, as well as lack of wastage owing to no spoilage and perfect portion control.
A counter-argument is that "home-made" adds credibility. At Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, chef and co-owner Ashley McCarthy serves home-made chips alongside home-grown or locally sourced seasonal veg as standard accompaniment to main courses.
McCarthy say: "I've never fully worked out the comparable cost of home-made against bought in, owing to the fact that we want to emphasise on the menu that we serve "home made, hand cut" chips. It's an added extra for customers.
"You'd have to factor in that chips would be delivered once or twice a week, so there would be the cost of storage of either chilled or frozen chips, perhaps needing an extra freezer, on top of the cost of the product themselves, On that basis, we believe home-made will work out cheaper - and if we ever run out we can easily make more with the same consistency and appearance."
Supplier Aviko advise operators to focus on the income generated by using pre-made potato products when making their stocking decisions. Based on selling a portion of chips for £2.50, Aviko estimates caterers can profit by an impressive 1,215% on each portion served. Mohammed Essa, general manager UK and Ireland at Aviko, says: "Chips can help up-sell a lunchtime sandwich, or accompany the most expensive of steaks and can offer fantastic margins to the end-user."
Lamb Weston says that at an average price of £1 per kg paid by caterers for frozen chips, at £2.50 a portion, caterers can make £100 profit on a 4 x 2.5kg case of its Britain's Pride chips. The company also supplies sweet potato fries, which allow for a further 20% to 30% mark-up.
While it may be easier to work out the cost of potato products when they are served as side dishes, making potatoes an integral part of a main course dish is "one of the better ways of adding value", according to Chris Ince, executive chef, of contract caterer 7 Day Catering. He cites flllet of black bream with sautéd potatoes, spinach and chorizo oil, a popular dish in one of the group's restaurants.
"This dish is created in the kitchen and produced in batches of about 10 portions throughout service," he says.
"Visually, this is a very appealing dish and sales are almost certainly higher than they would be if we served all the elements separately. On that basis, it commands a slightly higher price. More importantly, its allows us total control over portioning.
"In this particular restaurant footfall is high at peak times with customers helping themselves to sides of vegetables and potatoes. Hungry customers are more inclined to take more than they can eat, which inevitably leads to wasted product. The chef and service staff know how much potato is appropriate for the dish, so can portion correctly and within budget."
In a self-service environment, Ince suggests that roast, mashed, steamed or jacket potatoes are the best options, while more labour intensive dishes such as dauphinoise, boulangere, sauté or fondant, should be served as part of complete dish at a higher price, reflecting the greater production cost. "In this situation we are able to regulate the portions and therefore be sure of our margins."
In fixed-price restaurants a potato portion will be typically be sold for between 40p and 70p. "It doesn't always make sense to add a production cost to a more elaborate dish, as often customers will be reluctant to pay the higher price, so packaging the potato as part of the meal makes good sense. The spec for the dish is agreed, the margin is guaranteed and customer expectations fulfilled as they know exactly what they are paying for."
reinventing fish and chips
Lamb Weston suggests caterers can add a point of difference to a classic fish and chips meal by getting creative with its presentation.
â- Serve on alternative crockery - slate and wooden boards smarten presentation.
â- Offer a menu of chip choices with something new such as sweet potato or seasoned fries.
storing and handling
If using unprocessed potatoes, the way they are stored has a dramatic effect on how they perform in the kitchen. The Potato Council advises:
Cold storage: Potatoes can be stored for longer periods in a cold environment, which keeps their skin bright and attractive - but cold storage may turn the starch into sugars and this will make roasts and chips dark brown in colour - instead of golden brown - and they'll have a sweeter taste.
Ambient storage: Ambient conditions, while better for the potato, will reduce the time for which they can be stored and the outward appearance of the potato will deteriorate quicker.
â- Keep potatoes in a dry, frost-free place with good ventilation.
â- Store potatoes between 5 to 10Â°C.
â- Keep potatoes away from strong smelling foodstuffs or chemicals.
â- Clean the storage area regularly.
â- Avoid storing potatoes in strong light - natural or artificial - as they will turn green.
â- Keep potato stacks low (no more than 6 bags high) to avoid squashing.
â- Do not handle potatoes more often than is absolutely necessary - they bruise easily!
â- Don't use potatoes if they feel damp in the bag.
Potatoes in Food service
â- Potatoes are served with 45% of meals eaten out-of-home.
â- Annual potato sales are estimated to be worth around £2.5b to caterers.
â- Chips are the dominant potato serving, accounting for 85% of volume and 83% of value.
Source: Potato Council "Behind the Menu: Potatoes in Foodservice"
mix and match
McCain Foods advises matching different styles of to chip different dishes:
â- Thin-cut or crinkle with kids menus
â- Southern fries lattice with sandwiches
â- Gourmet chunky-cut with steak
â- Traditional medium-cut with fish
â- Traditional American-style fries with burgers
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