Shelburne, Ontario – Masquerade potatoes are no longer a secret. Trevor Downey is marketing the purple-skinned, yellow-fleshed tubers for the first time this month to Loblaw stores. The exclusive Canadian agreement includes two other varieties, Strawberry Blonde and Petite Merlot.
While the two-toned skin of Masquerades is intriguing, it’s the nutty flavour that is expected to make converts of consumers. But there’s more that’s unique about their story. Their germplasm was sourced from Peru.
In November 2013, Downey flew to Lima, Peru’s capital and headquarters of the International Potato Centre. He made some key contacts with the leaders of the gene bank that stores 20,000 different varieties of potatoes. From there, he travelled to Cusco to become immersed in native Inca culture. The local potato growers proudly showed their ‘papa’ at altitudes that ranged from 9,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level.
“Our family has been in the potato business since 1924 and I was curious to explore the origins in Peru,” says Trevor Downey, a fourth-generation potato grower. “In North America, our traditional potatoes are quite boring. In South America, the potato is celebrated. There are more potatoes with coloured flesh than not.”
Downey’s quest was for a specialty potato. From his marketing relationship with Loblaw’s Patrick Gilbert, vendor development manager and David McCausland, category manager, he knew there was a desire for new flavours.
Like a miner, it’s one thing to find the mother lode, but it’s quite another to extract the gem. As part of Downey’s discovery process, he found that Colorado growers had beat him to the “Masquerade” potato. It was logical that the potato would grow well at the high altitudes of the mountainous state. Fortunately, Downey negotiated licensing fees and marketing rights for Canada.
With that genetic property in hand, Downey approached Loblaw about exploring the new flavours and textures of these unusual potatoes. Discussions advanced to the stage that in March 2015, Loblaw’s produce category and procurement teams were brought together for a test kitchen trial.
These three varieties plus a broad range of specialty potatoes were put through their paces -- baked, fried, steamed, mashed – and then sampled by the group. Rankings sorted which were best for different end uses.
Masquerades, for instance, are great for baking. The Strawberry Blonde potato, with a blush-like skin, is ideal for boiling and mashing. As part of the new flavour package for Loblaw, Downey included a potato with Scottish origins – Petite Merlot. This oval-shaped, red-skinned potato has a smoky flavour when roasted.
With favourable reviews from the President’s Choice test kitchen, the launch process then moved to packaging and design. Unlike conventional five-pound and 10-pound bags, these three varieties of specialty potatoes will appear in three-pound bags. The Strawberry Blonde potatoes will be featured in the President’s Choice Holiday Insider’s Report. Further marketing support will be provided with recipes on the www.pc.ca website.
Together, these multi-hued potatoes will enter Loblaw’s national distribution chain by November 5. That’s prior to the busy Christmas season when professional chefs and home chefs alike will be looking for something special. Bassano Growers Ltd has joined the launch from its base in Alberta to supply western Canada.
“We work with growers right from the seed development stage,” says Dan Branson, senior director of produce, Loblaw Inc. from headquarters in Brampton, Ontario. “Trevor Downey is an example of a local strategic vendor whom we work with on innovative projects like this. We’ve worked with the Downey family for 30 years.”
Until recently, the potato category has not been a hotbed for innovation. But with declining prices for this staple and softening consumption patterns, (see side chart), the need is for a revival strategy.
“Five years ago, the creamer potato took off,” says Downey. “We want to tap into the craving for taste. For many years, we have marketed a commodity with no value added. With varieties such as Masquerade and Strawberry Blonde, there’s an opportunity to set them apart for flavour and be comfortable that the consumer will come back for more.”
For now, Branson says that contracted volumes are prudent. “We don’t want to put the grower at risk,” he says, “nor does Loblaw want product sitting in the store. We want to take the cues from customers. It’s a learning curve to see how demand might take off.
We want to build momentum for 2016.”
At the ground level, Downey has put a lot of sweat equity into these specialty potatoes. For the 2015 season, the Masquerade potatoes have been grown in Colorado and then shipped to Shelburne, Ontario for grading and packing. Downey must add his costs of transport and the exchange rate on the loonie.
“It’s a marginal margin,” says Downey of the potatoes that will retail for $3.99 for a three-pound bag. However, it’s the beginning of a multi-year process in testing the varieties in Canada. Plans are to double seed for the 2016 season.
What’s evolving in the potato category is similar to apples whose shelf space has expanded to accommodate new varieties. The French had it right all along when they called potatoes pommes de terre. Translation? Apples from the earth.
“We work with growers right from the seed development stage. Trevor Downey is an example of a local strategic vendor whom we work with on innovative projects like this. We’ve worked with the Downey family for 30 years.”
~ Dan Branson
PHOTO CUTLINE A: This season, fourth-generation potato grower Trevor Downey is proud of the quality potatoes going into cold storage near Shelburne, Ontario. He’s extra excited about a purple-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato that will debut in Loblaw stores this month. Photos by Glenn Lowson.
PHOTO CUTLINE B: Clockwise, these samples of Masquerade (foreground) Strawberry Blonde (behind) and Petite Merlot (right) are the latest in specialty potatoes to be marketed in Canada, exclusively through Loblaw.
PHOTO CUTLINE C: In November 2013, Trevor Downey travelled to Lima, Peru to visit the International Potato Centre. He ventured farther afield to Cusco in the Andes mountains where he spent a week visiting with potato farmers. More than 3,800 varieties of potatoes can be found in Peru, differing in size, shape, colour, skin, pulp, texture and taste.
PHOTO CUTLINE D: Patrick Gilbert, vendor development manager, Loblaw Inc, inspects the potato trials at the Elora Research Station this past August.