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The Great Big Idaho Potato Truck helps usher in early potato season at Northern California retailer

With summer-like temperatures still holding on in the Sacramento area in October, the Great Big Idaho Potato Truck rolled into town for a stop at a Raley’s location. The timing of the visit was significant, as it helped the retailer gear up for the fall season, when potatoes occupy a more prominent position in its merchandising efforts.

“The event took place in October and the weather had not quite cooled yet,” said Michael Schutt, produce category manager for Raley’s. Mike-Schutt-with-Tater-TeamMichael (Your Produce Man) Marks (second from right) with the Tater Team at the Raley’s location in Sacramento, CA.“When the weather cools down, that is when people start to gravitate toward comfort foods like potatoes, but this served as a great way to kick off our potato promotions a bit earlier than normal.”

Mr. Schutt, who has been with Raley’s for nearly 27 years and who handles produce procurement for its three retail banners — Raley’s, Knob Hill and Bel Air — as well as its box store division, Food Source, said that he worked with the Idaho Potato Commission in advance of the visit by the Tater Team, constructing a massive display inside the store and using promotional materials to help draw attention to Idaho potatoes.

“We were able to get information and point-of-sale materials from the IPC and from my Idaho potato supplier that we were able to tie in during the promotion,” he said. “We had banners, floor decals and other things that helped drive people to the display. We wanted there to be plenty of excitement both in the parking lot with the truck and inside the store with the display.”

The advanced planning was a key to the successful October day, but an unforeseen occurrence helped make it one of the more popular visits of the tour.

Michael Marks, also known as “Your Produce Man,” pitched in to help raise awareness of the visit by the Tater Team and the Great Big Idaho Potato Truck.

“I do some live produce segments for ‘Good Day Sacramento’ for CW31, and it’s the highest-rated morning show in the Sacramento area,” he said. “On the day the truck was in town, it was my day to be on the air and we covered it with two live segments at the Raley’s store. Viewers came out and wanted to see it, and it was wonderful.”

Mr. Marks said that over the past decade, potatoes have gotten poor publicity from the anti-carb movement, so the tour was “a very smart, very wise and very fun way to get potatoes back in the minds, eyes and hearts of Americans. It was a way for the IPC to connect with the shoppers and show that the russet potato is not the evil thing they were led to believe over the last decade. And over the coming weeks and months, I think it will benefit the potato industry.”

Mr. Schutt said that the potato category has been on the upswing since the economy took a dive several years ago.

“When the economy started to turn, we saw a shift in our stores away from prepared foods and more toward ingredients,” he said. “Cooking at home is better on the wallet, and people fell back in love with potatoes because they are affordable and so versatile.”

And for Raley’s customers, Idaho potatoes are the gold standard.

“The Raley’s customer is a higher-end customer who has a focus on quality, especially with produce,” he said. “The Idaho seal is a recognized logo and something that our customers look for. When they see the Idaho logo, they immediately relate it to quality potatoes. The SKU we handle most predominantly in the potato category is the Idaho five-pound bag.”

Mr. Schutt said that Raley’s has been a big supporter of the Idaho Potato Commission over the years, and it looks forward to participating in Potato Lover’s Month each February, when it constructs large and innovative displays. And while he is used to the outside-the-box thinking that the IPC brings to its promotions, the truck tour was especially impressive.

“I have seen a number of promotions throughout my career, but this one was especially impressive because you could sense the momentum building as the tour approached,” he said. “I was impressed with the truck as well as the tour itself, and how it was able to get the message out and reinforce the ‘Idaho’ brand. If anything like this happens here again, I would like to expose more people to it, including school kids.”

Mr. Marks was also impressed by the truck tour.

“In the produce industry, perception is everything, so when you see a huge baked potato, it just opens your eyes and you say ‘Wow!’“ he said. “I mean, who normally sees a baked potato that takes 150 years to bake and that makes 2 million French fries? It was exciting for both shoppers and Raley’s staff. And Raley’s was perfect, as it is a very local icon in Northern California. Raley’s is known for its fine produce, and what better produce item is there than an Idaho potato?”

Mr. Schutt agreed, saying, “There was perfect synergy between the promotion and our customers.”