By Kavita Sabharwal
Whether boiled, roasted, baked or fried, potatoes are a mainstay on almost every restaurant menu. As customer tastes evolve, chefs and restaurateurs find themselves looking for new and creative ways to serve these fan-favourites.
With potatoes, the possibilities are almost endless. It may be a matter of changing the type of potato in a classic dish, serving them alongside non-traditional dips or sauces, or pairing them with new flavours for an innovative take on a familiar dish.
Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice News spoke to chefs and potato experts to find out how the hottest potato trends can be used to revamp virtually every restaurant menu.
What’s trending in potatoes?
Over the last few years, consumers have become more concerned with eating “local.” In response, many restaurants have started to highlight the origin of ingredients on their menus, and guests seem to be willing to pay more for food with a clearly identified local origin.
“Consumers care about point-of-origin and product transparency. Patrons want to know that the items they buy can be traced back to a local farmer or small business,” says Katrina Fajardo, Consumer Insight manager at Lamb Weston. “To that end, Lamb Weston now provides information about the source of the potatoes we use through our ‘Trace My Fries’ initiative.”
While potatoes are often seen on lunch and dinner menus, consumers are now ordering the vegetable in other dayparts, such as breakfast and even dessert. This trend doesn’t just extend to classic potato dishes; old favourites are being reinvented using potatoes in place of other ingredients for a unique twist.
Hashbrowns are an old breakfast standby, but Chef/Owner Brenda O’Reilly of YellowBelly Brewery in St. John’s, NL, offers a more upscale take on the potato, serving au gratin potato eggs benedict with smoked local sausage. Milestones’ Corporate Executive Chef Jason Rosso suggests a similar breakfast twist: using potato bread to make French toast delivers a richer and more filling take on the classic. For a post-meal treat, Rosso notes he has seen potato soufflé on dessert menus.
Another trend, especially popular among Millennials, is all-day breakfast foods. According to Virginia Doiron, assistant brand manager, Foodservice Potatoes at McCain Foods (Canada), consumers are willing to spend on breakfast comfort foods if they are available anytime.
“Operators who have capitalized on all-day breakfast allow consumers to enjoy their favourite foods when they can manage the time. Offering an all-day breakfast also allows operators to promote low-cost items on lunch and dinner menus,” says Doiron.
“Millennials want new flavours that add excitement to breakfast and they are willing to pay for it. They are looking for a social experience with food that allows them to share and experiment, and that includes breakfast anytime they want it,” she adds, noting that this group accounts for a growing number of breakfast and brunch restaurant visits.
To bake or to fry?
Healthy eating is another trend that seems to be here to stay, especially for restaurant guests that suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. Potatoes are a tasty, widely available option that also offers these guests a slew of other nutritional benefits such as vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.
At O’Reilly’s, the menu offers something for everyone, including the health-conscious customers: fresh-cut sweet potato fries, oven-roasted baby potatoes, oven-baked wedges, mashed potatoes, riced potatoes and the traditional baked potato.
“Sweet potatoes remain popular, along with other potato varietals,” says Lamb Weston’s Fajardo. “These items enjoy somewhat of a ‘health halo’ and can often provide the opportunity for operators to boost their margins, by adding an upcharge for unique potato varieties.”
Even with many consumers focused on health, others see a visit to a restaurant as an opportunity to treat themselves to a menu favourite: French fries.
“Eating habits have evolved dramatically in the past decade. Consumers are more informed and educated than ever about what they choose to eat,” says Francis Robin, vice president of Valentine, a Quebec-based chain of quick-service restaurants. “However, French fries occupy a very special place in the culinary tastes of many consumers. Even though consumers decide to have a healthy diet on a regular basis, it remains that they still go for the occasional treat. French fries are definitely one of those occasional treats for many.”
New takes on old favourites
According to Rosso, what was once old is new again. “This year, last year, and even the year before that, we seemed to be going back to trends of focusing on quality finished products like French fries. We’re trying a few different techniques to improve the final product,” he says, including using different types of potatoes to add a new twist to classic dishes.
Rosso says that in the past, there weren’t many opportunities to use different varieties of potatoes simply because they weren’t widely available. “Now, mainstream growers are buying more unique varieties of potatoes. It opens up the creative lines to try different things,” he says. “The benefit for restaurants is that they’re still relatively affordable and they’re gross-margin friendly.”
Fajardo believes that potatoes are benefiting from new pairings and have moved into the role of co-star, rather than supporting character, on many plates. “The range of (fry) toppings has allowed for more interesting combinations, including ghost peppers, pulled pork, fried eggs, and even pepperoni and mozzarella cheese (as pizza fries),” she says.
“These combinations are big, bold and are keeping consumers interested, since it’s something they can’t always make at home, and cannot readily find at most restaurants.”
Inspiration is everywhere
When coming up with new recipes, O’Reilly combines her “love of all things potato,” with good, old-fashioned trial and error, and a desire to be different. And, it turns out, different is what consumers are looking for these days.
“Consumers today are more adventurous and are willing to try new flavours and dishes,” says Fajardo, thanks in part to changing demographics that are moving so-called ‘ethnic’ flavours into the mainstream.
Not only can inspiration be drawn from patrons, but from far-off locales, as well. “I do a lot of traveling, so I often draw inspiration there,” says Rosso. “It’s not a specific dish that sticks out in my mind, but it gets the creative juices flowing.”
Ethnic-inspired sauces are often paired with fries to introduce consumers to different flavours without demanding too big a commitment. “Consumers are stepping outside of their comfort zone and are looking for unique dips,” says Fajardo. “Sauces like sriracha, gochujang, chimichurri and chutneys provide patrons with a way to travel the world, within an approachable format.”
Beyond ethnic sauces and dips, Fajardo says potatoes are now moving into the ethnic entrée category. “Everything from potato pancakes to potatoes in curry sauce are catching consumers’ eyes as they provide unique takes on potatoes, and many of them are vegetarian-based (Indian dishes, for example). This bodes well for the health-conscious consumer,” she says.
Make them memorable
Potatoes can also prove good for a restaurant’s bottom line. “They’re only limited by the imagination,” says Rosso. “They’re very versatile and you can do a lot of cool stuff that you get premium dollar for without necessarily costing you an arm and a leg. ”
Whatever the cooking method, Rosso has one piece of advice: make sure you’re using a good potato. Since potatoes are accessible to anyone, if a consumer is going to a restaurant to eat potatoes, they had better be worth the trip.
“There’s not a lot of forgiveness among consumers for a bad potato,” he says. “The technique factor is important to ensure you’re always delivering a good experience.”
About the author:
Kavita Sabharwal is the editor and social media community manager for RestoBiz.ca.