‘When people outside the potato sector ask me what I do for work, I often respond by asking them what their favourite apple is’, explains Jeff. ‘Nine out of ten people immediately name a specific variety. Most can often also explain why they find this to be the best and what recipes they use it for. If I ask the same question about their favourite potato, however, they often look surprised or respond with “Idaho”. Potatoes are grown in Idaho, but it’s a State and not a variety! This type of reaction clearly shows how much we can still achieve with our business. My objective for the future is to ensure that nine out of ten people can easily talk about their favourite potato variety.’
There, he quickly applied his trading and chain-focussed approach to sales, operations, product management and business development. ‘At that moment, I had no idea about breeding, variety development and seed production’, explains Jeff. ‘As far as I was concerned, growers and packers were the first link in the value chain. Since working at HZPC, my perspective has completely changed; I now understand how much work is done before seed potatoes ever go into the ground to produce ware potatoes. With this newly acquired knowledge, I see a whole range of opportunities to capitalise more effectively on market needs and trends.’
Potatoes in the United States and Canada are a commodity. When selecting varieties, the colour of the skin tends to be the primary consideration. As new managing director of HZPC Americas Corp, Jeff Scramlin sees opportunities to increase market share by highlighting the distinguishing characteristics such as cooking types, flavors and textures. These efforts should help to de-commoditize potatoes, create demand and increase value through the chain in North America.
New food trends
Over the past few years, Jeff has revelled in business development and has largely set the tone for the SBDA Foodservice project. He engaged in research and investigative dialogue with the food service sector, from suppliers to restaurant owners and chefs. ‘This gave insights into their issues, e.g. regarding consistency, but we also identified the various opportunities among businesses in this sector.
With respect to consumers, they could use potatoes to really make a difference if they focussed on suitable varieties and refreshing food pairings. Just about 70% of consumer food trends begin in the food service sector. When their tasty menus tempt the public, the retail sector often follows their lead with potato products for home preparation.’
The efforts regarding the Foodservice project initiated several interesting developments. Last year, for example, a large quick-service restaurant chain in North America decided to differentiate by introducing yellow-fleshed French fries and that’s quite something in a fries market which is dominated by white-fleshed Russet varieties. ‘Another promising effect of the Foodservice project is the collaboration with large public and private universities regarding their food programmes’, explains Jeff.
‘By using potatoes as the main ingredient and zooming in on the flavour, combination options and nutritional value, we can influence ideas about potatoes and the eating habits of the younger generations. Due to the impact of coronavirus, these projects have unfortunately been delayed, but we will certainly develop the various pathways this year.’
Passion for the potato
In the meantime, Jeff began his first season as managing director of HZPC Americas Corp in September 2019; he succeeded Fred Koops who retired. ‘I feel honoured to represent the HZPC stakeholders in this market. My new role is perfect for me because I am a builder by nature and in North America we are certainly ready to grow’, adds Jeff.
‘My predecessors have built a strong foundation here; we work alongside great growers and have customers who recognise our added value. Since I started, I have updated my team with people who have a genuine passion for the potato. In order to double our market share in five years, and that’s our goal, we need comprehensive expertise, ideas and enthusiasm in order to get all we can from our stunning variety portfolio.’
The ambitions of HZPC Americas Corp are far-reaching. How will Jeff tackle this, with a relatively small team of eight employees in the huge continent of North America? ‘That’s precisely why empowerment within our team was the most important first step’, says the new managing director. ‘We need the right people and mindset in order to use the various bases that have been created for us over the past few years and translate these into business. And it’s high time for this approach.
As HZPC, in North America we are one of the few private breeding companies with an extensive variety portfolio and seed potato production in all the significant areas. Our new product manager works closely with seed potato growers, R&D and also our sales team so that we can focus on the right varieties for this global region and, in turn, expand further.’
According to Jeff, farmers in the United States and Canada do not necessarily lead the field when it comes to growing new varieties. However, once they have embraced a new variety, there is enormous room for growth. Colomba, for example, is doing really well and may become a leading variety for the fresh market. Other successful varieties include Fabula, Innovator, Mozart, Sifra and Vivaldi. ‘Nevertheless, it is the old, free races that still dominate the North American market, including Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold’, explains Jeff.
‘These are our main competitors. This is due to the fact that customers and consumers still primarily choose their potatoes based on skin colour and tuber size. But we will do all we can to bring about change in this area. We are building further on the results of our Foodservice market research and new partnerships, so that differentiation according to flavour, texture and cooking type becomes more common. There lies our greatest expansion opportunity.
Jeff has confidence in the cultural shift regarding potatoes, even though it may take a while. ‘As much as 73% of the population indicates that they eat potatoes at least once a week. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has become a real comfort food, however, people see the potato as a blank canvas to which they must add flavour. In North America, they are yet to discover which varieties, flavour sensations and options they have with respect to potatoes.
The younger generations and the increasing influence of different cultures offer a fantastic opportunity to impact on dietary trends. Over the coming decade, it is up to us to put the potatoes and our varieties under the spotlights. Marketing and concept branding are therefore an essential part of our growth strategy.’
HZPC Americas Corporation in brief
The North American market is served by HZPC from it’s home office in Charlottetown, Canada. Alongside the office there is a tissue culture lab and greenhouse for the cultivation of mini-tubers. The new managing director, Jeff Scramlin, lives in North Carolina and works with a team of eight expert employees: four in the Charlottetown office, and four throughout the United States. They must travel across the immense continent to visit customers and stay in contact with other value chain partners.
For seed potato production, HZPC Americas Corporation works with a stable group of twenty external growers, spread over the United States and Canada. In the mature North American market, HZPC has a relatively small share, competing mostly against free varieties. In this interview, Jeff Scramlin explains how he expects to bring about growth in the years ahead.