Hot Potato: Lowly Spuds Are Trendier than Ever

The lowly potato is quickly climbing the trendy food ladder. Burger Business says the quick-service chains are not adding “new creative entrees” to their menus, except when it comes to fries.

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Let’s face it: potatoes are cheap to buy and profitable to sell. To make even more money selling them, restaurant owners are adding spices (even McDonald’s is testing this concept) and topping them with gravies, sauces and dressings.

Part of the allure might be driven by the fact that, according to a Wall Street Journal story about potato consumption, we’re no longer buying or cooking as many potatoes at home. So when we dine out, we want our potatoes to be exotic and packed with flavor.

Buffalo Wings & Rings, a franchise chain with more than 55 units, offers six specialty potato options on its menu, the newest being Parmesan Garlic Aioli. Company president and CEO Nader Masadeh says he added the dish to “give consumers a fun, new flavor experience, and because Garlic Aioli and shaved Parmesan cheese [on fries] goes beyond the expected.” The chain charges from $1 to $2 more for its specialty fries, but sales of the specialty items are “outperforming” regular fries.

Of course you’d expect potatoes to be popular in burger and wings joints. But how about pizzerias? Toppers Pizza, a 63-unit franchise, introduced its Loaded Tot-zza pizza (covered with ranch, mozzarella cheese, tater tots, bacon, and green onions with drizzles of nacho cheese) last November.

From its inception, Toppers VP of Marketing Scott Iversen says it has been “one of our top-four selling house pizzas.” This summer the chain sold nearly 20,000 Loaded Tot-zzas. Iverson isn’t really surprised by the Tot-zza’s popularity. He says this “new twist on a comfort food” was driven by Toppers’ customers requesting some type of tater tot pizza via the company’s social media channels.

And then there’s the all-potatoes, all-the-time concept. Allen Dikker started exploring restaurant ideas after the recession hurt his ad business. He thought, “People have to eat, no matter the economy,” and realized all quick-service meals feature a carb. Further research showed “everyone loves potatoes and all cultures eat them.” And so Potatopia was born in December 2011 in a suburban mall in New Jersey. Two New York City locations followed (one in high-rent Manhattan) and the company is now offering franchises.

“Everyone grew up eating them at family dinners and they have broad appeal,” says Dikker, explaining potatoes’ appeal. Spuds are gluten-free and vegetarian-friendly. Dikker adds, “They can be healthy—or they can be indulgent.”

Potatopia’s top seller is smashed potatoes, which are baby reds (roasted or fried) and covered with the customer’s choice of toppings, protein and sauce. Dikker thinks his customers, who are 65% to 70% female, are attracted by the “guilty pleasure” of eating potatoes.

There are generally ten core dishes on Potatopia’s menu and a rotating array of limited offers based on the season. Another part of Potatopia’s appeal, says Dikker, are the cute names of the dishes, such as the Comatoser and I Think, Therefore I Yam. Dikker’s latest mission, which he says he’s close to solving, is figuring out how to make everyone’s favorite Potatoes au Gratin in three minutes.