George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company, had the idea for fresh-cut sweet potatoes more than 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that products started coming off the line of George Foods.
Wooten founded the Pembroke, N.C., company to provide customers with the convenience that has been lacking in sweet potatoes. With U.S. consumption at only 3.8 pounds a year compared to 28.5 pounds a year in 1930, George Foods has a bit of an uphill battle. But Wooten said the fresh-cut idea should change people’s minds about the vegetable.
U.S. consumers see the sweet potato as a holiday item and sales typically revolve around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the sweet potato is actually a very versatile vegetable, Wooten said, because there’s nothing you can’t do with it. It can be part of an entrée, a side dish or a dessert.
“You can throw it at your neighbor if you don’t like it,” he said jokingly.
The company operates out of a 95,000-square-foot facility, but not all of that will be used for fresh-cut operations. Wooten plans to expand the fresh-cut facility to handle more than just sweet potatoes; he wants to be a supplier of everything “except lettuce” in a 250-mile radius of Pembroke, he said. He’s purchased the machinery for a cabbage line and is talking to a carrot supplier.
The building was a pie bakery until Wooten bought it, so it is a food-grade facility with 24-hour security. Wooten employs 45 people at the processing plant, with the potential for 200 employees when more lines are added. The people of Pembroke were “ecstatic” that the plant would be in operation again, Wooten said.
North Carolina is the sweet potato capital of the United States, producing about 40 percent of the nation’s supply, according to the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. The plant is only 8 miles off the interstate, and Pembroke is only about 40 miles from Chadbourn, N.C., where Wooten splits his time with Wayne E. Bailey Produce. George Foods is centrally located on the East Coast, about 700 miles from both Miami and Boston. The company will primarily service that region, as 65 percent of the U.S. population lives east of the Mississippi River, Wooten said.
George Foods is the first fresh-cut sweet potato processor in North Carolina, and the second in the country. It’s a new enterprise that has a lot of room for growth, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director for the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. She said research by the commission found that customers are surprised when they find out they can eat sweet potatoes as a fresh-cut product.
With fresh-cut products gaining more market share every year, Johnson-Langdon said sweet potatoes were overdue.
“It’s time sweet potatoes had their place.”
For a short-term goal, Wooten said he hoped to process 5 million pounds of sweet potatoes, and eventually build up to 10 to 15 million pounds. Wayne E. Bailey Produce packages about 100 million pounds annually, and Wooten said 10 percent of that is a reasonable goal for fresh-cut products.
Using slight vacuum sealing, Wooten said the shelf life of the fresh-cut products was 14 days. That’s all natural, he said, because they don’t apply chemicals to extend shelf life.
The company already is producing for foodservice customers, and Wooten said he would probably introduce the retail line in the fall. Customers won’t be looking for sweet potato products until the holidays. Because the sweet potato is about 2.5 times harder to cut than a white potato, Wooten said the fresh-cut sweet potatoes should be a big holiday seller.
Johnson-Langdon said there probably wouldn’t be a large market for fresh-cut snacks, but most of the demand would be from the convenience factor.
“Anything that cuts down on preparation time will be perceived as value,” she said.
The response from foodservice customers has been good. Sweet potato fries have been the most successful item so far, but Wooten said that’s because fries are a year-round item. He expects sales of some of the other products to increase as the holiday season approaches.
There has been some interest from North Carolina schools. The company will supply some local schools with sweet potato sticks, which are a healthier alternative to french fries.
Chef Tony Merola has been working with Wooten since 1998 to develop new products and markets for sweet potatoes. He has helped create new recipes using the vegetable and spends time talking to retailers and foodservice operators to inform them about the benefits of sweet potatoes and tell them “what they’re missing out on.” He said he wanted the sweet potato to be seen as more than a holiday item.
“There’s 1,001 things you can do with a sweet potato,” Merola said.
Merola has created a number of new recipes using sweet potatoes to give other chefs more reasons to use them.
He’s developed recipes for using sweet potatoes with barbecue, stir-fry, soup, lettuce wraps and pasta, which he called “an outrageous dish.” Merola doesn’t use brown sugar on the vegetable, but instead slowly roasts it to bring out the natural sugars and flavor.
Merola said the sweet potato is probably the most versatile because you can eat it as a vegetable and as a dessert. Most customers are familiar with using a puree for sweet potato pies or soufflés, but Merola said the vegetable could also be used to make crème brulee and sweet potato ice cream, which he called “absolutely fantastic.”
The vegetable is one of the healthiest out there, Merola said. And Weight Watchers agrees. The diet company selected sweet potatoes as its vegetable pick of the season for October through December.
Wooten named the new company after his father, George. He died when Wooten was 6 years old, but he remembers his dad as the greatest – an innovative and creative man. The elder Wooten had been a businessman in the equipment industry, so Wooten said it was by God’s hand that he ended up in the produce industry.
When Wooten was 13, his mom married Elroy Bailey, the son of Wayne E. Bailey, founder of the sweet potato packing company that bares his name. Elroy ran the company from 1970 until his death in 1991, and Wooten took over as president at that time. He continues to serve as president and has two sons working there. His oldest, George Wooten III, is farm manager, and his second son, Adam, is the operations manager. He also has twin daughters, one of them a teacher and the other in graduate school.
Wooten said his work in the produce industry has given him the opportunity to travel across the United States, and even to Europe a couple of times.
“When I go I get to share my faith,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of the Gospel.”
That’s a message Wooten proclaims on his packaging, too. The tops of bulk sweet potato boxes from Wayne E. Bailey Produce have “sweet potatoes are God’s gift to people, and Jesus is God’s gift to people” printed on the top. He can’t print that on some customer’s boxes, but others, such as Winn-Dixie, Publix and Outback Steakhouse, don’t seem to mind. Wooten said he’s heard from people who were encouraged by the message.
He said he hoped to be the primary sponsor for the entire tour of a Christian band. His company was a sponsor for Spirit West Coast, a Christian music and teaching festival held in August in Monterey, Calif. He’s gone to the festival for the last eight years after discovering it while in California for the Produce Merchandising Association Foodservice Conference. Wooten said it’s important to have both a business and spiritual side when he sponsors an event.