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No. 2 spuds find fresh-cut fry market

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

The Idaho potato industry has noticed an increase in demand for No. 2 fresh spuds for fresh-cut fries.

There are no freezers in any of the 13 Meatheads Burgers & Fries restaurants.

That’s because the chain, which opened its first location in Bloomington, Ill., in 2007, utilizes only fresh beef for its gourmet hamburgers and hand-cuts fresh potatoes for its fries.

Restaurant industry experts say gourmet burger joints are on the upswing, and their customers have come to demand that they serve fries as fresh as their sandwiches. As a result, Idaho fresh potato sheds have begun to notice a spike in sales of their No. 2 spuds — those that may contain certain defects — for fresh cut fries.

Meatheads Marketing Director Joe Sanders said the chain plans to add four more stores, including its first Indiana location, within the next year.

Sanders said fresh-cut fries require a bit of extra work and must be blanched in the morning in order to fry well later.

“The product you get is so much better, and I think people appreciate that,” Sanders said. “The effort really pays off when you have a simple product that tastes so much better.”

Idaho Potato Commission officials say the trend toward fresh-cut fries is good news for growers in their state. Idaho is the major producer of Russet Burbanks, the variety of choice for fresh-cut fries. Furthermore, restaurants seeking to emphasize the high quality of their fresh fries tend to gravitate toward Idaho due to the state’s reputation, said Don Odiorne, IPC’s vice president of food service. Furthermore, Odiorne said it’s easier in the fresh supply chain to guarantee spuds are sourced from Idaho.

“We’re very fortunate that Idaho has the gold standard for fresh-cut fries,” Odiorne said. “I’d say there are very few exceptions where someone has not been seeking out Idaho first.”

Indeed, Sanders said every Meatheads restaurant has a sign with the Idaho potato seal above its fry cutter.

Odiorne said the vast majority of emerging gourmet hamburger restaurants use fresh-cut fries, and existing chains that serve them, such as Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Elevation Burger and Wingstop, are adding new locations. Late this summer, the popular East Coast gourmet hamburger chain Shake Shack switched from frozen to fresh fries, advertising its preference for Idaho Russet Burbanks.

“If you’re going to compete with some of the other gourmet burger chains, your best weapon to do that would be having hand-cut fries,” Odiorne said.

Odiorne expects frozen products will continue to dominate the fry category. Nonetheless, he said fresh-cut fries now account for the majority of Idaho’s sales of No. 2 fresh spuds, which tend to range from 15-25 percent of the state’s annual fresh crop.

Peggy Grover, an IPC board member with Benchmark Produce in Rexburg, said her business’s sales for fresh-cut fries have at least doubled in the past few years.

“This fall, it seemed like a lot of (restaurants) have started to change over to fresh (fries),” Grover said. “Some of our customers have had frozen fries and taken fresh potatoes for baking. They’ve turned over to fresh fries.”



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