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Wayne E. Bailey taking sweet potatoes to the next level with foodservice

Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. is making a concerted push with fresh-cut processed sweet potatoes, and the July 29-31 Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference & Exposition provides it with the perfect venue for its efforts.

“I’ll be joined at the Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company booth, number 34, at the PMA Foodservice expo by Michelle Jacobs and Ronnie Mercer, sales associates with our company,” George Wooten, president and chief executive officer of the Chadbourn, NC-based company told The Produce News.

“We’ve been at this for a while,” he said, referring to the ongoing promotions in the fresh-cut line. “Demand is picking up. It’s just not one of those things where the light switch is turned on and you have light. Growth has been consistent, and our goal now is to handle fresh-cut fries. We also offer cubes, and the two items are the most popular among foodservice operators.”

Mr. Wooten noted that most fresh-cut sweet potato packs for foodservice are five pounds. The company tries to stay with a master case of 20 pounds, but the individual packs can vary in weight.

Wayne E. Bailey is currently seeing a renewed interest in sweet potato sizing among foodservice operators. Mr. Wooten said that the majority of whole sweet potatoes used for baking are in the casual-dining steakhouse group. “It’s hard to find one of those restaurants that doesn’t offer sweet potatoes today,” he said. “And some concept restaurants are looking at secondary uses for sweet potatoes, such as chips and mashed. Some are also looking at sweet potatoes as an alternative to white potatoes, which opens up huge opportunities for chains to get into.”

Sweet potato fries are on many people’s minds today, and sweet potatoes in general are feeling the impact from the media attention to the wealth of nutrition they offer. They are low glycemic, colorful, nutritious and a great option for diabetics. These factors are driving the recent spike in demand.

Sweet potato consumption facts support Mr. Wooten’s statement about increased demand. He noted that in 1930, consumers ate 28.5 pounds of sweet potatoes annually. In 1993, consumption had dropped to 3.8 pounds per year.

“In 2010, we reached 6.2 pounds per person annually,” he said. “And that was a half of a pound increase from the year before. We believe that foodservice is the trend setter for the foods that people want to fix in their own kitchens, and we believe this to be a fact when it comes to the increase in sweet potato demand today.”

He also pointed out that in recessionary times, there are few nutritionally packed food items that present a value as outstanding as sweet potatoes. “That’s especially true in comparison to white potatoes, which are priced very high today,” he said.

Wayne E. Bailey services every category in the foodservice sector — from high end to fast-food chains. He said that he has heard word that Chick Filet, McDonald’s and Wendy’s are currently in test markets with sweet potato fries, and Hardy’s has already added the item to its menu.

Demand has caused acreage increases at Wayne E. Bailey over the past few years, and this year the company has again increased its sweet potato volume by 30 percent. Mr. Wooten said it is a little too early to tell how this year’s crop will fare, but pretty dry weather in June was not helpful, and he added that he is looking forward to a little more rain.

Each year, family members at Wayne E. Bailey take their sweet potato advertising message to Christian concerts. “The series we’re involved with this year is doing a short tour cycle in the Rocky Mountains and on the West Coast of the country in November,” he said.

Ted Copeland has joined Wayne E. Bailey and is partnering with the firm on business development. “Ted has over 30 years of experience in the transportation and produce-logistics industry,” said Mr. Wooten. “He started his career with C.H. Robinson, managing their Cleveland office, and then went on to develop four of his own companies that focused on third-party transportation and produce. These past successful experiences make him a good fit to help Wayne Bailey and will help to move us to the next level in our business development.”