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Potato Redux : As the Dining Public's Interest in French Fries Ebbs, Industry Seeks New Ways to Prepare the Lowly Spud

November 20, 1988|JESUS SANCHEZ | Times Staff Writer

A typical restaurant can make 80 cents to 85 cents of profit on $1 worth of french fries sold, say analysts. That compares to about 70 cents of profit on a $1 hamburger. "They are probably one of the most profitable items that you have in a fast-food operation," said Bill Main, a Northern California restaurant consultant. "It's one of the easiest items to prepare. All they do is open the packet and throw them in the fryer."

At McDonald's, which sold 755 million pounds of its famous shoestrings last year, three out of five customers buy a pack of fries with their order. "We at McDonald's consider the french fry our flagship product," said Jerry Randklev, quality assurance manager for potato products.

Growing Boredom

With so much riding on fries, it is no wonder that french fry makers are looking at new ways to boost sagging sales and reverse what some perceive as Americans's boredom with the standard fry.

"That's why you get skin on fries," said William Norton, a fast-food consultant in Minneapolis. "It looks much more upscale, and then the consumer thinks they are better. People are starting to do a lot more things with fries."

But some of these fancy new fries may not help much. "I don't see (sales) going up, I see them flat at best," said Bekermeier at Technomic. "Menus used to list a cheeseburger, hamburger, french fries and Coke--that was it. Now you can get a taco, you can get a burrito, you can get a salad."

Some new products, however, have met with success. The 2,000-unit Arby's chain recently introduced the Curly-Q Fry, which is cut in a spiral shape and seasoned.

"It's actually selling every bit as good as the regular french fry, " said Ira Hermann, Arby's executive vice president and chief operating officer, who expects overall fry sales to increase 15% because of the Curly-Q. Besides being more profitable than its regular fries, the Curly-Q, he said, "makes us distinctive."

One way french fry makers hope to boost sales is by introducing products that will be sold outside of restaurants.

At Ore-Ida, for instance, the company is testing french fry vending machines in Chicago. The computer-controlled machines are designed to deliver a fresh batch of fries in 35 seconds. If the test proves a demand for the product, Ore-Ida said it plans to install about 1,600 machines next year and as many as 60,000 in the next five years.

Microwaveable Fries Next

Companies are looking at microwaveable fries as a means of boosting lagging supermarket sales of fries and taking advantage of a boom in microwave ovens. But executives say many microwave fries lack the crispy exterior fry lovers crave.

"Right now the consumer has voted on what's out there and with kind of mixed reviews at best," said David Kelley, director of marketing at Lamb Weston, a potato processor.

French fry makers and restaurant owners are also looking at ways to improve the appeal of the fry to health-conscious Americans. About 20 pieces of fries cooked in beef fat account for 274 calories and 13.2 grams of fat--almost 25% of the daily fat intake recommended by health experts. "We recommend that people stick with a baked or a boiled potato," said Bettye Nowlin, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.

Many restaurants and potato processors now use cholesterol-free vegetable shortening instead of beef fat to fry their french fries. Yet this method still leaves the fry heavy with fat.

"We need to make a stronger attempt at reducing the fat content of french fries, said Cowan at Carnation. "All the major packers are working on it now."

But many in the industry argue that when it comes to fries, more consumers are concerned about taste than health.

"What it comes down to is taste," said product marketing executive Paul Haack at Jack in the Box, which recently introduced a larger pack of fries that has since outsold the smaller pack. "People talk about nutrition but then the taste buds take over. And those french fries are so good."

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