Sweet potatoes – if you’re not already stocking the root veg in abundance, then read on. The versatile root veg that packs a healthy punch is making a growing appearance on UK restaurant menus, while chefs, including Jamie Oliver, are starting to sing its praises. With the USA having produced sweet potatoes for decades, PBUK speaks with the international arm of fourth-generation North Carolina grower Scott Farms about the ongoing investment being made to guarantee both consistent supplies and consumer demand, all year round
In 2006/07 when Scott Farms launched its global export business, Scott Farms International, the firm shipped just 2,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes. This year, volume will hit just under a staggering 30,000 tonnes, according to Stan Smith, a director of Scott Farms and CEO of Scott Farms International.
Smith, a self-confessed sweet potato virgin until he met company owner Sonny Scott, describes this as “reasonably steady” growth over a nine-year period in which sweet potatoes have become a staple in the weekly UK shopping basket and the USA has emerged as the UK’s biggest supplier by far.
UK consumption has risen 91% to 81,271 tonnes between 2011 and 2015
Consumption per person has risen to 2.15kg
Consumer knowledge of sweet potato’s health value stands at 56%
“Anyone not buying sweet potatoes now is missing a trick, and, of course, most already do,” points out Smith. “Since 2011 there has been a 38% increase in UK sweet potato purchasers, according to our 2015 market research of 1,000 UK consumers [see table below], and penetration is at 60%.”
Q – Do you buy sweet potatoes?
Source: Sweet Potato Consumption Surveys – Commissioned by Scott Farms International
Sweet Potato Survey 2011 – Toluna Surveys
Sweet Potato Survey 2013 – Atomik Research
Sweet Potato Survey 2015 – Atomik Research
According to ICC Comtrade figures based on Eurostat data, last year the UK imported 81,271 tonnes of sweet potatoes, up 91% in five years and valued at £44.4m. Over 38 million people are now regularly eating the vegetable, up 40% in four years as increasingly consumers munch their way through sweet potato crisps, chips, mash and roasties.
People are buying sweet potatoes more regularly too. According to Smith, this year sweet potatoes were included for the very first time in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) official weekly shopping basket.
“Nine years ago, that would’ve been a dream for us,” he exclaims. “Five years ago when we started our Love Sweet Potatoes campaign [spearheaded by a consumer-facing website of the same name] we made the audacious ambition of saying we wanted sweet potatoes to become a staple purchase in every trolley, every week. When we heard the ONS had included it in the weekly shop we jumped up and down on our desks! It’s very exciting for us.”
Such is the growth that Smith believes the “trend stage” has been passed for sweet potatoes. Indeed, as well as consumers increasing their purchases, the vegetable is appearing more often on UK restaurant menus as a healthier alternative to potato chips and other potato-based dishes.
According to Horizons, the UK-based analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector, sweet potatoes have seen a 52% increase in UK menu appearances year-on-year during summer 2015, up 16% on winter 2014.
“Since 2010 its appearances have almost doubled,” explains Horizons managing director Peter Backman. “Nando’s is offering sweet potato wedges, the hotel chain Marriott has a sweet potato cobbler on its menu, while Wetherspoon’s sells a sweet potato curry.”
Influential celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, meanwhile, has ranked sweet potatoes at number four in his recent list of the top 14 ‘hero’ foods that will help you reach 100 years old. As such, the vegetable features strongly in his new ‘Everday Super Food’ cookbook and Super Food TV programme, which is encouraging people to try recipes such as sweet potato breakfast muffins. Oliver’s website also recently featured a stand-alone article on why sweet potatoes are healthy.
Added to that, the processed market has accelerated the expansion of sweet potato sales during the last few years, and that’s where Scott Farms is seeing the most prolific growth now, according to Smith.
Already, the company supplies its own range of branded sweet potato chips (crisps) and Smith says the project is going extremely well. Sales are expanding to Europe and the trend is taking off in the USA with chips, wedges and fried sweet potatoes all up for grabs in many countries.
USA – the preferred supplier
But none of that would’ve been possible without a reliable, consistent quality product. Equally, the market will not continue to grow unless that supply is sustained either. This is where the USA has played a role and will continue to deliver, according to Smith.
“All that [growth] is underpinned by one dominant factor – availability from the USA,” he states. “Eight to nine years ago there were processed sweet potato products on the market, but major manufacturers like McCain and Kettle Chips weren’t committed because they couldn’t get the continuity of supply to produce first class consumer products all year round.
“The UK multiples wouldn’t really have sourced sweet potatoes from the USA until after Christmas either. Now they’re waiting with baited breath for the new crop [which gets underway this month].”
Smith says that situation has changed over the last five years, with greater commitment from the USA to supply overseas markets like the UK. Today, the USA is the predominant supplier, representing 50% of the sweet potatoes imported into UK and continental Europe, according to the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute.
Before that, other sources enjoyed varying degrees of market share. Israel, for example, was more prevalent from September to February, although its market and supply has diminished for various economic reasons.
“Nine years ago USA sweet potatoes were still a seasonal product with supplies that began in October,” Smith explains. “Whilst they’re grown like conventional potatoes, once they’re harvested sweet potatoes need to be cured before they can be stored for up to a year.
“The USA saw a window of opportunity. There has been ongoing investment into increased storage and technology as well as increased acreage, so availability is now virtually 12 months of year.”
Today, the USA “unquestionably” offers the best product, according to Smith. “It has the best constitution,” he says. “Without any question it’s the best sweet potato from an eating point of view; it’s very sweet, and full of nutrients such as vitamin A and potassium. Added to that, the yield from the traditional Covington [orange] variety makes the perfect combination. This gives the USA competitive advantages over other producing countries.”
USA production has therefore been growing at a pace far ahead of anyone else, says Smith. And although there is no such thing as the perfect growing condition, in North Carolina he claims the environment is “as perfect as you can get”. “It has a loam sandy soil, the right amount of sunshine and rainfall,” he notes. “It’s the nearest match to perfect you can get on earth from my point of view.
With the level of consumer, foodservice and retail interest rising, it begs the question does the USA have the capacity to comfortably meet this burgeoning demand? Being at the forefront of creating that market and with four generations of experience, Smith says Scott Farms is certainly geared up to satisfy the UK’s sweet potato cravings now and in the future.
“Our heavy investment into marketing and consumer awareness is supported by our investment in production,” he claims. “Scott Farms was the first company to commit to the international business by setting up an international operation [Scott Farms International]. That has to be serviced by volume and our acreage has increased.”
Today, Scott Farms operates across 12,500 acres in North Carolina, which are planted not only with sweet potatoes. The company has just invested in a new US$10 million (£6.6m) custom-built and designed packhouse to meet the demands of the market the company is helping to create. This season’s sweet potato crop will be the first to be processed in that packing facility.
Many other North Carolina growers also produce sweet potatoes, some of whom exported their crops even before Scott Farms. All have benefitted from the market’s expansion in the UK and more producers are jumping on the bandwagon.
With that in mind, Scott Farms’ new facility will also process and pack some sweet potatoes from other growers, who Smith stresses operate under the group’s strict supervision. “We have a standard,” he says. We’ve increased our own production and acreage and anything else is to support that – it’s a minor part of our offer.”
Having driven the creation of the sweet potato market, the challenge now for Scott Farms is to both remain at the forefront and continue to appeal to consumers in order to drive sales.
To that end, Smith says the company is securing a point of difference via its broad range of sweet potato products. From whole fresh Covington, to Scott Farms-branded sweet potato chips, the company is developing new varieties and has a sweet potato preserves (jam) offer with two flavours coming to the market.
In addition to the traditional orange-coloured Covington variety, Scott Farms uses white and purple sweet potato varieties in its chips range. Those varieties are also sold as a whole head product in Europe, and Smith believes the UK consumer is ready now too.
“We sell three-coloured sweet potatoes in nets under the Scott Farms brand; they’re on sale in Europe, but not yet in the UK. That’s part of our development strategy – as awareness increases, you can create a sub category. And there are other varieties out there, not just white and purple.
“Ten years ago you could only buy beef, cherry and standard tomato varieties,” Smith continues. “Now the major retailers have 40-odd lines for tomatoes. There have always been different varieties of conventional potatoes, such as King Edward, Maris Piper and new potatoes etc, so the sweet potato category will grow too.”
The orange, white and purple varieties present distinct flavours, according to Scott Farms International’s group head of marketing and communications, Natasha Stonebridge. “Sweet potatoes are so exciting because you can eat them raw or cooked and every one has a distinct flavour,” she explains.
“The taste comes down to the level of sweetness. Orange is very sweet, purple has an earthy, woody taste and white is delicate with a coconut-like texture when cut. Presented together, orange and purple are very appealing and look fantastic.”
As well as developing new varieties, Smith also reveals that Scott Farms International is involved with another very exciting product that is about to launch. “We can’t talk about it yet,” says Smith, tantalisingly adding that the project has been in development for over two years.
“Sweet potatoes have got a lot of traction, which has been helped by the likes of Jamie Oliver, but we don’t want to just let the market work on its own momentum. We will continue to invest in driving the category forward.”
Further marketing plans
As part of next year’s investment budget for the Love Sweet Potatoes campaign, Scott Farms has commissioned its celebrity chef Felice Tocchini to come up with new recipes to showcase to consumers the versatility and value of sweet potatoes, whether eaten raw or cooked or as a convenience food.
“It’s about continually finding new ways to eat and enjoy sweet potatoes,” says Stonebridge. “For us, it’s a win-win – if people buy more, we sell more. But it’s also a very healthy product and we want to showcase fresh produce and healthy eating.”
The firm has just designed a new infographic for end users, which Stonebridge says uses very consumer-friendly language to cut through any confusion about why sweet potatoes are healthy.
Scott Farms International is also investing in its future market by working more directly to educate kids, having recently sponsored the late September Write on Kew Literary Festival at Kew Gardens in London, where the firm hosted a sweet potato workshop for children. Read this article on PBUK to find out more.
“We love the interaction with end users and you very rarely get that as a grower-supplier,” Stonebridge points out. “At Write on Kew we promoted sweet potatoes as an experience for the first time, rather than via our usual online and social media activities.
“We had a simple message for kids – that sweet potatoes make you strong and help to fight off colds. We want kids to realise that eating sweet potatoes is very good for them, to spread that message among their peers and to ask their parents to buy them.”