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.

Five Guys Burgers & Fries prefers Russet Burbanks, says Jerry Murrell, the Lordon, Virginia–based company’s owner and founder. Walk into a Five Guys unit and you’ll find 50-pound bags of Idaho potatoes stacked throughout.

Unlike restaurants that use frozen fries, Five Guys goes through the time-consuming effort of machine-cutting skin-on fries, which are then blanched, or deep-fried, to boil the spuds and provide a soft, tasty interior. The fries are finished later by frying them at a higher temperature to provide a crispy crust.

Murrell says many frozen fries are “dehydrogenated” and sop up oil when they are cooked. Water in fresh potatoes, however, will boil when they are cooked, and little oil is lost, which is important at Five Guys because it uses more expensive peanut oil.

The chain also features Cajun-style fries, dusted with McCormick Cajun Seasoning.

While diners may be split over whether they go to Five Guys for the burgers or the fries, there’s no question that most customers of Boise Fry Co. are there primarily for the potatoes. The Boise, Idaho, restaurant’s motto is “burgers on the side.”

Boise Fry offers numerous potato varieties that change seasonally. In the fall, for instance, there are Russets, Yukon Golds, and Purple Peruvians from Idaho; sweet and white potatoes from California; and German Butterballs.

“We just try to keep everything fresh and seasonal,” says owner Blake Lingle.

Fries are sold in four shapes and cost $2.39 for a small serving and $4.79 for a bowl. A wide array of seasonings, such as rosemary garlic salt and vanilla, are available, as are eight dipping sauces, led by blueberry ketchup and sonti sauce.

“Dips and seasonings provide so many taste options for customers at relatively little additional cost,” Lingle says. However, Boise Fry’s special fries, which are flash fried in duck fat and seasoned with black truffle salt, carry a hefty $8 price tag.

A number of other quick-service and fast-casual restaurants dotted across the country are devoted to selling upscale fries as well.

At Fritz, the Place to Eat, in Keene, New Hampshire, owner Jessica Graveline brought ideas garnered during her years in New York City, where she frequented Pomme Frites, which is known for its fresh-cut, twice-cooked Belgian frites and dipping sauces.

“I was looking for a high-margin product out there, and this is probably the highest margin going,” says Graveline, who grew up on a potato farm. She began with fries and paninis and has since expanded into salads and burgers.

Graveline employs several Massachusetts-grown potato varieties, and Fritz’s 15 dipping sauces include rosemary garlic, Parmesan peppercorn, honey Dijon, and curry pineapple.

No U.S. restaurant has expanded a fries-based menu into numerous units, but that isn’t the case in Canada, where New York Fries has grown to nearly 200 stores, mainly in mall food courts. The fries are also served at growing sister chain, South St. Burger Co.

Potatoes are kept in temperature-controlled facilities and are hand-cut at every store, where the slices are stored in cold water before going into a three-step cooking process, says marketing manager Alyssa Berenstein.

The taters are fried in sunflower oil, and no timers are involved “because the potato chemistry changes from season to season.” Instead, cooks rely on their training and experience to tell when each stage of the process is done.

Customers can get cheese sauce, gravy, or sour cream for dipping, and there are several seasonings and vinegars available.

New York Fries also sells a Canadian favorite: poutine. The dish is a base of fries, topped with cheese curd (similar to fresh mozzarella) and gravy, which melts the cheese and provides a savory flavor.

“You don’t see poutine much in the States, but it could become a regional item,” says Idaho expert Odiorne.

One type of potato getting increased interest for fries among American restaurant operators is the sweet potato. The growing demand for these orange tubers is in large part because they are seen as healthier, packed with vitamins, nutrients, and fiber.

“Sweet potatoes are off the chart,” says Bonnie Urresti, director of customer marketing for ConAgra’s Lamb Weston division, an industry provider of frozen potato products. “Hardly a customer we talk to doesn’t make that a topic of the conversation.”

The company invested $120 million in a state-of-the-art sweet potato processing plant in Delhi, Louisiana, that opened this fall. Louisiana is the third-largest sweet potato producing state behind North Carolina and Mississippi.

As with many of the fries of all shapes and sizes sold by Lamb Weston, sweet potato fries are partially cooked before being frozen and shipped to restaurants. “There is no difference in [handling] sweet potato fries from an operator’s perspective,” Urresti says.

But sweet potato fries are more expensive, in part because the potato’s irregular shape causes more waste during processing, says George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co, a Chadbourn, North Carolina, sweet potato grower and shipper.

Nonetheless, “the sales line is going straight up for sweet potato fries,” he says. “We could be up 10 percent” this year.

At Smashburger, Sweet Potato Smashfries were a regional item in the chain’s Dallas stores until interest in them soared when they were featured on a national food program. They were added to the national menu in June.

Like the Denver-based company’s regular Smashfries, the sweet potato version is tossed in olive oil, rosemary, and garlic. The chain, which also features shoestring-cut Russets with sea salt, receives potato products that are frozen and partially cooked, “and that works just fine for us,” says Smashburger founder Tom Ryan.

Another Smashburger regional item, fried pickles, which were sold only in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, market, also made it onto the national menu this year. Additionally, the company offers Veggie Frites, which are flash fried asparagus spears, carrot sticks, and green beans.

White Castle, based in Columbus, Ohio, has sold sweet potato fries as a seasonal item around Thanksgiving and Christmas for several years. Local stores can decide to keep the fries longer if they wish, says company spokeswoman Kim Bartley.

Sweet potato fries are also a seasonal side at Burgerville, the Vancouver, Washington–based fast-casual chain that earned acclaimed for its focus on local products. The fries are typically on the menu from the late summer until about Thanksgiving.

“We are always looking to have at least one alternative to our standard french fries,” says Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer.

The chain offers cross-cut Washington-grown Yukon Gold fries after Thanksgiving, followed by fried portabella mushroom wedges served with garlic aioli; rosemary fries, in which shoestring fries are mixed with olive oil and rosemary; deep fried asparagus; and Walla Walla Sweet Onion Rings, made with onions from northeast Washington.

The best part about these additional sides is that they are not cannibalizing sales of regular french fries.

“When we started selling the Walla Walla onion rings, we noticed an incredible positive response, but no change in fry sales,” Graves says. “We discovered that people wanted more than just standard fries. They like variety.”