Potatoes stand the test of time on Canadian menus

By Sean Moon
November 27, 2013
Potatoes stand the test of time on Canadian restaurant menus

No matter how you slice it, dice it or cook it, the humble potato has an almost revered place on Canadian restaurant menus. Fried, baked, roasted, mashed or slathered in cheese curds and gravy, we just can’t seem to get enough of their earthy goodness. Heck, we even write folk songs about them (who else remembers Stompin Tom’s ditty Bud the Spud?). While the popularity of other ingredients ebbs and flows with fickle consumer trends, Canadian diners today have more choice than ever before on restaurant menus when it comes to the tasty tuber.

Lauded for its versatility and simplicity, the potato lends itself to a multitude of preparation and cooking methods, as well as acting as a perfect receptacle for a wide variety of spices, seasonings and accompaniments. New options such as red-skinned potatoes are appearing on a wider selection of menu day parts while traditional Canadian favourites such as poutine are getting gussied up at full-service restaurants. Even health-conscious carbo-phobes have reason to celebrate as more restaurants are climbing aboard the sweet potato bandwagon every day to offer an alternative to their white potato cousins.

Fries still number one

While French fries are still the heavy favourite with Canadian consumers, variations on the lovable spud are becoming more popular within different foodservice segments, according to potato producer McCain Foods.

“Sweet potato fries have begun entering the QSR arena while poutine is being fancied up in FSR restaurants,” says Kelly Switzer, senior brand manager, McCain Foods. “Manufacturers and operators continue to innovate, with the goal of keeping consumers interested and excited. For example, we recently launched our lineup of fresh-style fries, which deliver the authentic fresh-cut taste and texture consumers love, without the hassle of fresh-cut prep. Our team learned first-hand from the trade to develop fries with homemade potato taste, texture and appearance – all with the consistency and convenience of frozen.”

Portions shrinking

With many consumers viewing French fries as somewhat of a treat when they eat out, other cooking and preparation methods are also proving popular. In addition, diners are seeing perhaps a few less potatoes on their plates than in days past to cater to their new tastes.

“Mashed and roasted potatoes are increasing in popularity as a side option, along with sweet potatoes,” says Mike Ste Marie, key account manager of ConAgra Foods/Lamb Weston. “The frequency of visits to restaurants by consumers isn’t necessarily declining, but in many cases the portion size of French fries and potatoes is declining. This both controls costs and decreases waste for the operator, and allows consumers to still have their treat, albeit in smaller doses.”

As the sweet potato continues to gain ground in terms of popularity on restaurant menus, all types of potatoes are appearing on a wider variety of menu day parts. Gone are the days when having potatoes at a meal simply meant a side of fries or a dressed baked potato.

Versatile veggie

“We have an extensive list of products currently that are well suited for each day part and offer a great deal of versatility,” says Chris Lovisa, corporate chef of Cavendish Farms. “Products do not have to be labeled for a specific day part to be used at that time. Non-traditional, creative and innovative uses of products allow for greater usage and appeal in various menu sections and in different day parts – creativity is the key. An example is baked sweet potato fries at breakfast.”

McCain’s Switzer agrees, adding that potatoes can be used to bring a little extra surprise to more traditional dishes not usually associated with potatoes.

“The great thing about potatoes is that they fit all the different day parts,” says Switzer. “Hashbrowns and diced potatoes are the most popular for breakfast. They could be used as a side option or you could try something like hashbrowns as the base for eggs with hollandaise sauce. We feature a number of recipes on our website which help give operators ideas for using potatoes in all the day parts in unique ways.”

Creates variety

Ste Marie says that having a facility built specifically for the production of sweet potatoes has also allowed his company to create a variety of sweet potato options with different cuts and seasonings.

“In turn, this has allowed us to be featured more prominently on appetizer menus for lunch and dinner and even dices for breakfast,” says Ste Marie.

According to many chefs and producers, using both regular and sweet potatoes is also a great way to experiment with a wide variety of spices, seasonings and herbs. Ranging from sweet to savoury flavourings, producers are now giving operators and diners plenty to choose from.

“Operators are offering gourmet ketchup recipes, different kinds of aioli and even drizzling garlic or truffle oil and adding parmesan or other cheeses to fries now,” says Ste Marie. “Poutines are very popular, as fries are now being topped with everything from pulled pork to demi glaces and even marshmallows. The flavours are not restricted to anything and chefs everywhere are creating all kinds of new ways to present fries.”

French fries are the most frequently freatured potato format on Canadain appetizer menus

Source: Technomic

Look for a fit

No matter what accoutrements chefs choose to add, however, restaurants should keep in mind what their menu stands for and how those flavours blend in with the restaurant’s intended overall dining experience, according to Lovisa.

“Incorporating popular and trending flavours and ingredients is important provided that the menu idea or item fits within the framework of the restaurant concept,” says Lovisa. “Utilize menu features, menu boards or limited-time offers to evaluate guest acceptance of new and innovative flavours and applications.”

With an increasing number of consumers looking for healthier menu options, some diners may avoid potatoes due mainly to their reputation as high-carbohydrate items and less healthy cooking techniques such as deep frying. But as sweet potatoes and other varieties grow in popularity, so does the potential for healthier potato preparations, says Switzer.

Changing perceptions

“Potato varieties like sweet potatoes and red-skin potatoes have a ‘health halo’ with consumers and having these varieties as a second fry option is a great way to give consumers choice,” says Switzer. “They are also seen as more ‘premium’ and operators can charge more compared to the traditional fry. Potatoes that are baked, roasted or in a wedge-cut type with skin on are also seen as being healthier with consumers.”

Ultimately, though, it will be up to restaurant diners to decide which potato trends stay on the menu and which are destined for the stock pot. But based on the popularity of the reliable old spud, it looks like we’ll be singing its praises for years to come.

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