Menu Innovations | November 2010 | By Barney Wolf

These Spuds Aren’t Duds

Restaurants use different varieties, seasonings, and dips to spice up potato sales.

Potato fries may have originated in Europe, but Americans have certainly embraced them as their own.

After all, nearly 8 billion servings of french fries were sold in U.S. restaurants during the 12 months that ended in June, according to statistics from NPD Group, a global market research firm. That represented 15.5 percent of all restaurant orders.

Despite those high numbers, servings of fries—a particularly profitable menu item—fell 2 percent from the same period a year earlier, a decline that began in 2006, before the ongoing economic malaise began. Some of the falloff is due to fewer combination meals being bought by adults and healthier products being added to kids’ meals.

In an attempt to counter this trend, restaurants have started giving customers more options through the use of multiple potato varieties; different cooking oils; additional seasonings, spices, dips, and dressings; and even other fried veggies.

“There is a lot of innovation going on right now to build more interest in fries” as a side or a snack, says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst. “Consumers have become adventuresome, and they are looking for new flavors and something different.”

Seasonings and dipping sauces are efficient ways to accomplish that, she says.

Statistics from Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research and consulting firm, found that preferences rose last year for dips and sauces with fries and onion rings. Even ketchup, the traditional favorite with fries, jumped five points to 70 percent as a preferred dip.

Ranch dressing edged past cheese sauce into second place, 33 to 32 percent, respectively, while mustard’s preference rate nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent, good for fourth best.

Just as importantly, Americans by more than a 2-to-1 ratio prefer their fries to be seasoned with pepper, Cajun spices, or other flavorings.

“It seems customers are willing to go out of their way for the fries they want,” says Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager at Technomic. And that’s important, since fries “are still the go-to side item” at most quick-service restaurants.

The nation’s biggest burger chains offer traditional french fries, while a number of other quick-service operations, including Checkers/Rally’s, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, serve up seasoned varieties.

One of Arby’s long-time signature items is curly fries, a spiral-cut fry coated with a secret combination of salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and other savory seasonings.

“Youngsters find them really fun, and older adult eaters recognize us for having a very flavorful product that is unique in the quick-serve segment,” says Brian Kolodziej, vice president of product development and integration for Atlanta-based Arby’s.

The coating of seasonings not only provides a different taste, but it also helps keep the fries crisp and provides their color. Additionally, he says, the fries’ shape encourages dipping them in Arby’s sauces, including cheese, horseradish, and barbecue.

Another signature item is Potato Oles at Taco John’s. This quarter-sized fried disc of shredded spud has a proprietary savory seasoning with a touch of heat, and it was designed years ago to give the chain a potato product to compete with burger chains.

“It’s the No. 1 identifying item on our menu,” says Bob Karisny, vice president for menu strategy and innovation for the Cheyenne, Wyoming–based chain. The company’s nacho cheese sauce is the most popular condiment, he says.

Fry-related items should increasingly show up in restaurants’ new-product pipeline, as research and development for taters gets back on track after being placed on the back burner so that restaurants could focus on healthier frying oils.

“The switch in oils took a lot of money that normally would have gone into R&D,” says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. Operators “have now turned back to the potato because it is such a cost-effective choice.”

Idaho is the nation’s top potato-producing state with 11.5 percent of the 41.3 billion pounds of spuds grown in the U.S. Washington is next with 9.3 percent, while other states trail far behind, according to 2008 statistics from the Agriculture Department.

Not surprisingly, many of the nation’s restaurants use Idaho potatoes, particularly the solid, flavorful Russet Burbank variety, which grows heartily in the Northwest climate and stores well. This low-moisture tuber also fries particularly nicely, says Odiorne, who as “Dr. Potato” answers questions about potatoes on the commission’s website.