Last year's atrocious weather hammered spud supplies but new season crops look set to return quantity, quality and affordable prices to this menu staple.
Spuds are one of the most popular and versatile plate and stomach fillers. But their status as an inexpensive menu staple took a battering when last year's torrential weather devastated maincrop autumn harvests across Great Britain and northern Europe.
For Carroll's Heritage Potatoes, the weather precipitated an "annus horribilis" at its Northumbrian farm, says director Lucy Carroll. Sodden ground stopped the gourmet grower from planting its Shetland Black 1923, Mayan Gold, Mr Little Yetholm's Gypsy 1899, and Red Duke of York 1942 Bakers varieties, and limited supplies of Salad Blue 1900, Highland Burgundy 1936 and Yukon Gold.
The weather fed blight and mildew and led to smaller-sized, skin-marked potatoes. Yield fell by 25% and the cost to foodservice operators rose by an average of 40%, according to Kevin Keohane, purchasing manager at buying group Acquire Services.
John Pinder, managing director at Lynx Purchasing, said the market had to be boosted by imports and stored product for several months. Imports of fresh potatoes soared by more than 200% to make up the shortfall, confirms Chris Clare, head of insight at Prestige Purchasing.
"Worst hit have been baking potatoes, which have recently shown price increases in excess of 150% compared with this time last year," says Keohane. "This shortage of large potatoes has had a significant knock-on effect, with caterers turning to smaller varieties as an alternative and prices rising as a result."
With average prices for potatoes of mediocre quality more than doubling year-on-year to ï¿¡300-plus per ton for several weeks in the summer, many caterers had to reassess their offer.
"Caterers can look to add different potato dishes to their menu, such as mashed potato, using the smaller varieties, or offer alternatives such as sweet potatoes or roasted vegetables," Keohane suggests.
Nottinghamshire Council limited potatoes to two or three times a week on its school menus from May, using rice, pasta and noodles to fill the gap.
But substitution is not an option for the nation's fryers. "In 33 years I have only once seen potato prices so high," says David Henley of award-winning Essex fish and chip shop Henleys of Wivenhoe, in June. "This week I paid ï¿¡17.50 for a sack of best quality Agria. I can get Maris Pipers for around ï¿¡11.25, but now is not the time to cut back on quality."
Instead, Henleys has used its strong bonds with suppliers to get a good deal: "I was able to reserve 20 tons at ï¿¡11.25 while everyone else was paying ï¿¡16.50. On that one deal I saved £4,200."
Price hikes were less severe on finished products such as chips and crisps and potato processors insist their ready-to-cook products can buffer caterers against seasonal changes in price and quality.
"We have contracts with growers all over Europe, which ensures we get the best of the crop and guarantees consistency of supply," explains Mohammed Essa, general manager UK and Ireland at Aviko. "Pre-prepared also means no nasty surprises when it comes to the size or the markings on
The time, labour and waste-saving benefits of pre-prepared (30% of a fresh potato is binned) can help keep operators' costs down, argues Donna Rowbottom, marketing manager at McCain Foods. She says McCain's recently launched Signatures Roasts, which cook in 30 minutes, offers an everyday profit opportunity for the 80% of publicans who can only offer roast potatoes on Sundays.
The good news is that the great British potato looks set to bounce back. After successfully planting all of its 17 unusual varieties, Carroll's has its fingers crossed for dry autumn harvest conditions.
Will Beeson, managing director at East Anglian potato grower and supplier Preva Produce, says the warm, sunny summer has ensured healthy volumes of good-quality new and salad potatoes. While maincrop potatoes are still being harvested, the signs are, says Beeson, that the overall crop is going to be far better than last season and prices are returning to affordable levels.
Clare, too, is optimistic that the cold wet winter being forecast will fall within normal parameters, stabilising prices back at normal seasonal patterns.
"The crop should almost be back to normal this year," confirms Pinder at Lynx. "Prices should be coming down from early October, with the biggest reductions on the larger potatoes such as bakers, chippers and Maris Pipers."
The green shoots were visible this August when average British prices fell significantly back below their international counterparts, says Clare. By mid-September, Henley could buy quality Agrias for £5.50 a bag again rather than £17.50. Beeson reports that the big count 40 bakers used for jacket potatoes have dropped back from 50p to 15p per potato.
In the light of National Farmers' Union reports of a bumper crop bringing the cost of potatoes tumbling, Nottingham Council is now reviewing its school meal restriction on potatoes.
In a reversal of last season, British growers are now exporting to northern Europe. Combined with the fixed price pre-season contracts that now cover three-quarters of the UK crop will, Beeson predicts, help bring stability to the home market and maintain sensible price levels in the UK.
Potato Week runs from 7 to 13 October. It will promote the versatility of popular varieties and encourage caterers to expand their use of potatoes to curries, stir-fries and soups. View promotional and recipe ideas - including a sticky orange potato cake - at www.lovepotatoes.co.uk and www.potato.org.uk/promotion/foodservice-resources
The Potato Council's weekly average price survey shows that the GB price per ton was £223.30 (2012: £117.72) in the three weeks to 4 January 2013, while the free-buy (FB) average was £335.19 (£93.31). Both averages for the 2012 crop exceeded £300 in three separate weeks in May and June. A dramatic fall from August heralded the 2013 crop, as shown below.
Prices in brackets are for the equivalent period of 2012. The GB average includes both contracted and FB sales.
Week ending 10 May 2013
GB £303.03 (£127.78)
FB £390.91 (£91.77)
Week ending 28 June 2013
GB £301.94 (£177.15)
FB £383.58 (£168.24)
Week ending 9 August 2013
GB £182.14 (£187.62)
FB £180.27 (£229.23)
Week ending 6 September 2013
GB £161.21 (£204.22)
FB £143.61 (£262.09)
There were 1.79 billion potato servings out-of-home in the year to March 2013, down 6.3% on the previous year. Potatoes featured in 15.3% of meal orders compared with 16.4% a year ago.
10 survival strategies
David Henley, Henleys of Wivenhoe, Essex
(Best Fish and Chip Shop London & South East 2013)
- Cultivate a good relationship with your potato merchant. Show an interest in their business and visit them regularly in person.
- Build up trust and agree fair trading terms. Paying cash on delivery will help a potato merchant's cashflow. If you settle for a 30-day account, pay on time.
- Give your potato merchant honest feedback about quality and suitability so they can report back to the grower they use. My supplier, H&E Edwards of Colchester, will give me six sacks to test for them when they have a new batch from a new grower.
- Never cut corners with quality; cutting corners is very short-sighted and a reputation built up over many years can be lost in just a few days. Never skimp on your team, either - they are your best and most important asset.
Chris Clare, Prestige Purchasing
- Try lesser-known varieties such as Marfona (for mashing and boiling) or Sagitta (for frying) - they're cheaper than the more common Maris Pipers and King Edwards.
- See if own-brand chips can offer the same quality at a lower cost - many are made by the same manufacturers as branded ones. Consider chip formats, too - thinner chips are more expensive but give better plate coverage. Chips from other vegetables such as parsnip are also gaining popularity.
- Potatoes with severe blackspot must be destroyed, but you can trim damaged areas if any appear after cooking.
- Cut away blemishes near the skin, using irregular shapes (and Grade II potatoes) for mash and smaller potatoes for boiling.
- Use remnants that are normally binned - tops and tails for mash or frying, and potato peelings as roasted snacks - to cut costs further.
- Consider fixed pricing contracts for the new season - many suppliers will have already agreed on pricing for the entire season and they can pass savings on to you. Remember, pricing in the winter is 5-10% more expensive. If you buy vast quantities, it may be worth looking further up the supply chain.
Acquire Services 0800 316 4441 www.acquireservices.com
Aviko 01442 239536 www.aviko.com
Carroll's Heritage Potatoes 01890 883060 www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk
Lynx Purchasing 01937 858 646 www.lynxpurchasing.co.uk
McCain Foods 0800 146 573 www.mccain.co.uk
Prestige Purchasing 01908 222678 www.prestige-purchasing.eu
Preva Produce 01362 684 300 www.preva.co.uk