There’s no question that sweet potato sales have taken off.
U.S. per capita consumption in 2011 was 6.9 pounds compared with 3.8 pounds in 2002, says Charles Walker, executive director of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C.
This year’s crop is expected to hit 2.7 billion pounds.
Retailers say they’ve noticed a significant uptick in sales, even during the “off-season,” largely because of increased publicity about the health benefits of the tubers.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has labeled the sweet potato as the No. 1 most nutritious vegetable, calling it a “nutritional All-Star.”
Matter of choice
Retailers have responded to sweet potatoes’ growing popularity by offering choices of bulk or bagged product, merchandising unique varieties, selling individually wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes and, in some cases, by offering processed product, such as cubed sweet potatoes.
A couple of new varieties are on the horizon.
The Orleans has the same yields as traditional sweet potatoes, but it offers more No. 1 grade product because it has more consistent size and shape, says Matt Garber, partner in Garber Farms, Iota, La.
“It looks a little cleaner on the shelf,” he says.
Supplies will be limited mostly to Louisiana growers this year, but it should be available industrywide next year, as more seed becomes available.
Also arriving on the scene is the 07-146 variety licensed by ConAgra Foods. It has red skin, good sugar content and is said to be a good potato for fries.
Offering specialty varieties is one way to boost sales. And if you’re looking for specialties, look to California.
“California is unique,” says Scott Stoddard, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension and secretary of the Livingston-based Sweet Potato Council of California.
About 90% of the sweet potatoes produced in other states are the traditional orange-flesh kind, like the beauregard, covington and evangeline, he says.
Besides the more common varieties, California grows red yams, which have an orange flesh and reddish/burgundy skin; sweets (sometimes called Jersey sweets), which have a dry, yellow flesh; and Oriental or Japanese sweet potatoes, which typically have a purple skin and white flesh.
“Our red yam market is probably our biggest market,” Stoddard says. They account for up to 50% of the sweet potatoes the state grows. About 25% are the standard variety, 15% are sweets and 15% are Japanese.
Despite year-round availability, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year’s, Easter and even Mother’s Day remain the most common occasions for promoting sweet potatoes, says Mike Kemp, vice president of brand development for Market Fresh Produce LLC, Nixa, Mo.
But with demand for sweet potatoes growing by double digits, he says, “We suggest promoting them at least once a month, especially the 3-pound bags, since consumers like the grab-and-go feature.”
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“(Bags) are one of the fastest growing segments in sweet potato sales,” says Jason Bell, owner of Tater Man, Sydney, Fla. “Retailers should truly
promote this category, especially with all the positive nutritional press that is being given to sweet potatoes.”
Grilled sweet potatoes are great during the summer, especially with pork, adds Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.
Year-round sweet potato sales have doubled over the past three to four years at the three Modesto, Calif.-based O’Brien’s Market locations, says Gary Camarillo, produce manager for one of two Modesto stores and buyer for all three locations.
Still, sales skyrocket around Thanksgiving, and store displays are about 10 times bigger — and more spread out — during the holidays.
O’Brien’s merchandises some of the tubers at the front of the store in a special fall foods display. Stores also feature some sweet potatoes in the produce department near the onions and dry goods and place others near the turkeys.
During a typical week, the stores each move up to five 40-pound cases, but Camarillo sells up to 1,500 pounds for Thanksgiving. Together, the three stores move about 3,000 pounds for that holiday, he says.
Besides standard sweet potatoes, O’Brien’s offers red Japanese yams.
Camarillo cross-merchandises sweet potatoes with such items as marshmallows and nuts.
He advertises sweet potatoes a lot during fall and for the Easter holiday and features them occasionally during other times of the year.
Typical ad price is 2 for $1 compared with a regular price of $1.49 per pound.
Sometimes, especially around the holidays, the stores feature 3-pound bags of sweet potatoes, which shoppers like for their convenience. But O’Brien’s specializes in top-quality produce, so consumers usually prefer to pick out their sweet potatoes themselves from bulk displays, Camarillo says.
O’Brien’s also features cubed and cleaned sweet potatoes in 1-pound cello bags for the holidays, and 1-pound bags of organic sweet potatoes also are good sellers, he says.
Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Enterprises LLC, which operates a chain of 38 supermarkets, specializes in “local” sweet potatoes from Louisiana and Mississippi, says produce buyer Pat Morris.
Besides traditional varieties, the stores offer specialties like the jewel, which it procures from Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.
Morris expands displays from 3 feet to 4- to 6-feet around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when sweet potatoes are on ad nearly every week.
During the rest of the year, Rouses features sweet potatoes about once a month, and sometimes they’re written up in the in-house healthy-living magazine, which publishes farmer profiles.
The stores offer regular and petite sizes and sometimes merchandise 5-pound bags. The chain also offers organic sweet potatoes in bags and sources clamshells of cubed product from a South Carolina processor.
Want to sell more sweet potatoes?
The U.S. Sweet Potato Council suggest that you offer two sizes — No. 1s and jumbos; offer loose, bagged and individually wrapped sweet potatoes; offer two colors, such as rose and cream colored; and stock up for Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year’s, Easter and Mother’s Day.
Large, well-positioned displays, cross-merchandising and offering several colors help move more sweet potatoes, Graves of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council says.
“You’ve got to show off the sweet potatoes, put them where people can find them in a volume that they can see,” he says.
Finally, never store sweet potatoes below 55 F (12.8 C).
“They should definitely not be put in a refrigerated storage case, “Stoddard says. “That’s the best way there is to ruin a sweet potato.”