PINGREE, Idaho — Twice each week, Egan Click, with Sysco Corp. in Chicago, inspects 100,000-pound rail loads of Idaho potatoes to make certain they meet customers’ size and quality specifications.
But Click acknowledges that prior to participating in an Idaho Potato Commission-sponsored harvest tour, he didn’t fully appreciate the “unbelievable” process Idaho growers, packers and shippers follow to meet the standards associated with their state’s seal.
Click was among the 28 professionals within the growing food service category IPC included in a Sept. 26-29 tour. Participants representing major potato markets such as Illinois, California, Texas and New York toured potato harvest, a fresh packing operation, a dehydrated potato plant and a frozen potato processing plant.
“My director wanted me to get a better sense of knowing what I’m looking for,” said Click, who vowed to have more empathy when he encounters future spud defects.
Don Odiorne, IPC’s vice president of food service, said the food service professionals head home with photographs and stories about Idaho potato production to share with their staffs and may become “brand advocates.”
“They are telling us, ‘We need to be able to respond to our customers when they have questions about potatoes,’ so this is a real good way to build loyalty among those who are buying Idaho potatoes and paying a premium for them,” Odiorne said.
During the past year, the volume of U.S. potatoes sold by the food service sector — comprising food consumed outside of the home — surpassed retail for the first time, Odiorne said.
After leading the IPC group on a tour of his company’s fresh packing facility in Pingree, Kevin Stanger, with Wada Farms, said more homes have two working parents, and there are fewer traditional “Leave it to Beaver” households, where families routinely dine on home-cooked meals.
“It isn’t a huge shift, but it’s a continual shift of people who don’t have time to cook at home,” Stanger said.
Odiorne believes consumers are also demanding a broader variety of creative and ethnic foods that would often be too challenging, costly and time consuming to prepare at home.
To reach the food service sector, Odiorne said IPC advertises in food service publications and sends a calendar featuring creative potato ideas by top chefs to 50,000 chefs each year.
Tour participant Maryanne Dinardo, a manager serving the Lake Erie area with U.S. Foods, said her company plans to organize an Idaho potato harvest promotion, including information about Idaho products on its literature and offering discounted rates on products to its customers.
“Idaho is still king,” added Scott Mealwitz, produce manager with Sysco Cleveland. “That’s what most of our customers want.”
IPC spends under $2,500 per domestic participant on its tours, and will invite food bloggers to visit Idaho next fall. A couple of weeks ago, Odiorne said IPC hosted international buyers from the Pacific Rim on a similar tour, which has already resulted in a large purchase of dehydrated spuds by one of the participants.