Trend watch: Potatoes are a center-plate food

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Consumers’ demand for customization along with more healthy food and snacking options has led to the emergence of a new fast casual category — the potato concept. French Fry Heaven — which makes French fries 50 ways in nearly 20 locations — and Potatopia, an East Coast brand that allows guests to create their own baked potatoes by topping them with a variety of meats, cheeses, veggies and sauces, seem to be cashing in on this trend. And they’ll soon have a new competitor.

Potato Flats, created by Phil Romano, who also created Fuddrucker’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, will open the first location in Dallas. Guests will enter a line to order their baked potatoes and select their toppings from a line of hot pots, according to the Dallas Business Journal, which reported that Romano hopes to eventually expand the concept into schools, airports and food courts.

Food operators giving more attention to the potato doesn’t come as a shock to Meredith Myers of the United States Potato Board.

“One of the reasons that potatoes are so popular is that they are a healthful canvas for the bold, exciting, authentic flavors that today’s customers are demanding,” she said. “It’s no surprise that potatoes — the No. 1 foodservice side dish and ultimate comfort food — are now center stage at new restaurants.”

Customizable snacking

Up until recently, the customization model had only been applied to entrée-focused concepts, which led to the success of burger, salad and pizza concpets, for example. That model is now moving into what Lauren Hallow, assistant editor at Technomic, calls “singular-focused snacking” concepts.

“Singular-focused snacking concepts like popcorn shops and pretzel stores have been around for awhile, but these latest concepts differentiate themselves by offering patrons customizable options,” she said. “The concept may be focused on one type of food, but with the variety of ingredients and toppings offered, patrons can still make it their own. That’s why potato concepts are trending now. Potatoes offer a lot of customizable options and appeal to pretty much everyone, so it’s a practical choice for operators looking to launch a snacking concept.”

Hallow said potatoes aren’t the only new snack concept; she also mentioned New York’s The Nugget Spot, which offers five types of nuggets with a variety of breadings and sauces; Empire Biscuit, which sells biscuits with a choice of butter, jam, spread or marmalade and biscuit sandwiches; and Pie Face, an Australian chain with several locations in New York that specialize in small pies.

What each of those concepts have in common is that they are in malls or urban areas with heavy foot traffic and are typically open late or stay open around the clock.

“The convenient locations and long hours help these concepts appeal to a variety of snackers, from those on an afternoon shopping break to patrons looking for a late-night treat, and ensure that we’ll be seeing more of these types of concepts in the future,” she said.

It’s not all about convenient locations and hours, however. For a singular-snacking option to work, the food must be versatile, which is why the potato is working.

“They can be prepared in a variety of ways, from mashed to fried, and can be customized with a range of toppings or dipping sauces. Patrons can also choose what type of snack they want,” Hallow said. “Those looking for an indulgent snack can order loaded French fries, while diners wanting a lighter option can choose a baked potato.”

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