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Wada Farms and Dole committed to expanding sweet potato sales

by Tim Linden | August 19, 2009
Bob Meek, chief executive officer of Wada Farms Marketing Group, based in Idaho Falls, ID, calls sweet potatoes a "sleeping giant."

Anthony Totta, a produce industry marketing expert, believes sweet potatoes "are an SKU that should be a category."

It is this belief that sweet potatoes are an underperforming and underdeveloped produce item that has led Dole Fresh Vegetables and Wada Farms to make a major push to reinvent the sweet potato in the collective mind of consumers.

This effort is being led by Mr. Totta, who is CEO of his own consulting firm, Grow My Profits LLC, and who is serving as director of business development for Dole's sweet potato program. Wada Farms is the exclusive marketer of "Dole" brand onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

"We believe the sweet potato category has underperformed and there is great potential for growth," said Mr. Totta.

In late August, Wada Farms planned to ramp up its efforts to increase the consumption of sweet potatoes in both retail and foodservice.

"For the last several months, we have been developing the supply side," said Mr. Totta. "We now have sweet potato partnerships in California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Carolina. Previously, we had a deal in North Carolina and a little production coming out of California. Now we have partnered with the largest grower in both Louisiana and Arkansas and the largest shipper in Mississippi."

As a result of these partnerships, he said that the "Dole" brand is now the largest supplier of sweet potatoes in the country.

"We intend to become the category manager at retail," he added. Mr. Meek said that the great health benefits of the product work very well with the nutrition message that Dole emphasizes with its other branded produce items.

"Sweet potatoes are one of the healthier, if not the healthiest, produce item," he said. "We see great opportunity."

Mr. Meek said that the program appeals directly to consumers by extending Dole's Superfoods campaign, which employs product labeling, recipes and on-line education resources to tout the health benefits of its fresh products. Mr. Meek said that the foodservice sector has been increasing its use of sweet potatoes in recent years, with many chefs developing innovative sweet potato recipes. He said that Wada Farms' plan is to build on this momentum created by the top restaurants in the country.

Mr. Totta said the continued development of the foodservice sector is an important component of the new sweet potato marketing push.

Mr. Totta said that at retail, sweet potatoes would be available in a variety of both traditional and innovative packaging. "We will have club packs, bags, microwavable packaging and bulk packs."

While the traditional orange variety will continue to dominate the category, the Wada-Dole partnership will also concentrate on expanding sales of specialty sweet potatoes, including those that have red, white and purple potatoes, said Mr. Totta, who added, "Our goal is to educate consumers and teach them various ways to cook the sweet potato. There are many, many ways to use them, from grilled to making smoothies."

Mr. Meek said sweet potatoes are underutilized by the typical consumer. "On the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain area where I have lived most of my life, people don't know how to cook a sweet potato. Maybe they eat them once a year around the holidays. We want to change that."

Mr. Totta said that as one would guess, the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holidays are the big consumption days for sweet potatoes, with the fourth quarter of the calendar year being when the majority of the production is sold. "We want to make it an everyday item with year-round consumption." A new crop of sweet potatoes was just beginning to be shipped by Wada's California growers when Messrs. Meek and Totta spoke Aug. 19 with The Produce News.

"North Carolina will begin shipping next week, and by the first week or two of September, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas will begin," said Mr. Totta, who has been traveling around the country meeting with retailers and explaining the new campaign for the past several months. "We've had a great response and hopefully will get an even better one once they read this article."