Talking Shop with… Ralph Schwartz

The director of vendor management and value-added marketing for Potandon Produce says that much change has taken place in the produce category in recent years.

What is happening in the potato category?

Ralph Schwartz: It is amazing to see the amount of change that has taken place in the potato category over the past two decades. Traditional potato types such as russets and round whites have seen some of their shelf-space reduced to make way for a host of new and unique potato varieties. Round red, yellow and red skinned-yellow fleshed potatoes were but fringe items in the early 1990s, but as consumers hungered for something different, these varieties quickly morphed into mainstream offerings at most retail outlets. Little did the industry know that fantastic changes were on the horizon.

Did new varieties spark the uptick in sales?

Once the retail community got a taste of how adding new varieties could really transform their potato category into a renewed retail destination, things started to get interesting. Growers and marketers of fresh potatoes had always used size to create different retail packages but those packs frequently focused on bigger potatoes. The influx of new varieties opened the door to expand this thinking, with the smaller potatoes surfacing as hidden jewels. Petite, gourmet, mini and a host of other jargon, became commonplace very quickly throughout the trade. New packaging was introduced to help position the smaller offerings as premium retail items. Clamshells and netted bags were quickly adopted to satisfy demand but their life-cycle would be short as growers across the country focused their efforts on developing premium packaging such as vertical bags and high-graphic poly packs to call out specific attributes of the specialty potatoes.

Another noticeable characteristic in the current line-up of specialty and variety potatoes across the trade is smaller pack sizes. Where traditional mainstream potatoes were marketed in large pantry size bags, specialty variety potatoes are usually found in bags three pounds or less, with many ranging in the 24- to 28- ounce range. The smaller packs are perfect for a single occasion use and are marketed differently, keying on taste characteristics, convenience, cooking occasions and nutritional value. These new additions are bringing incremental sales dollars to the category and offer retailers many new opportunities for creative merchandising and cross-promoting.

What other trends do you see?

We continue to see the specialty variety segment evolve with color being another differentiating factor. Purple potatoes are now being studied for their antioxidant characteristics and different shades of reds, yellows, pink and even blue potatoes are being introduced to the marketplace. Potatoes are adding a fantastic color splash to plate presentations in many restaurants nationwide. Fingerling varieties are becoming more popular for their shape in gourmet meal preparation. Larger size variety potatoes are being baked, boiled and mashed to create culinary masterpieces that are healthy and eye-appealing.

Potatoes are suddenly exciting and recipe development has been on a breakneck pace as new flavors are discovered and new health benefits identified. Potatoes have always been highly nutritious, being one of the top sources of natural potassium, vitamins C and B6. Many of the newer varieties have been found to be rich in antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients, thus furthering the potatoes reputation as being a key part of a healthy diet. Consumers are once again using potatoes as a part of their creative process in meal development but now instead of all the extra additives of the traditional baked potato, we are seeing exotic spices and healthy oils being used to compliment the natural flavor of the new varieties, thus enhancing their already strong health appeal.

With so many potato varieties worldwide to choose from, retailers and consumers alike can expect to see a continued stream of new products for years to come. In the future, heirloom potatoes from the Andes Mountains might be served in a Manhattan restaurant, purple French fries could be available at the local food joint, and the supermarket will certainly offer a cornucopia of sizes, shapes and colors in the potato category.

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