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McCain Foods Canada president talks tater tots and innovation

President Shai Altman sits down with Canadian Grocer ahead of CEO conference


McCain Foods Canada recently opened a new production line at its factory in Florenceville, NB. The $65-million addition is among a series of investments the frozen French fry giant is making over the next year as it looks to increase its global capacity.

President Shai Altman spoke with Canadian Grocer -- ahead of
his appearance at this year's Thought Leadership Conference -- about how the company is innovating, the French fry industry’s resilience, and why frozen potato products aren’t just for dinner anymore.

What was the reason for building the new production line?
We’ve been growing quite significantly over the last few years, and we ended up with a lack of capacity – especially in the product lines the new facility is going to make. If we want to innovate and grow the business, we have to build more capacity to allow us to do that. We’re still very tight across our network, but we’re unlocking potential with new capacity coming on board.

How much capacity does the new line add?
About 100 million pounds of finished potatoes are going to go through this new line . One priority is ensuring that we meet customer needs for our current products, and then we have a few innovations.

Read: McCain celebrates its spuds suppliers

What types of innovations?
There are some regular lines like French fries, crinkle cut and potato wedges, and what we call specialty – which is products like tater tots and hash browns. We’ve seen that segment grow quite significantly over the last few years with a big increase in potato consumption in both foodservice and retail. We had to add capacity to meet customer demand in both segments.

What is driving this innovation?
Consumers are looking for something beyond . They like to experiment with their food more than ever, and it’s the same in the French fry category.


We’re trying to find flavours that fit with what consumers are looking for, and provide more interesting offerings. We are seeing that consumers want to experiment, and some of our campaigns in the past couple of years have been around how they can upgrade a French fry with things like chives and cheese, just trying to inspire home chefs to play with our products and create recipes that are exciting for them.

Read: McCain’s new ad pushes versatility of fries

Is flavour an area where we can expect to see a lot of product innovation?
Flavour is one area there are also a lot of different size and shape offerings. I can’t go into too many specifics because some of the products haven’t been launched yet, but we are trying to fit products into some consumer trends – whether it’s sizes or different usage occasions. Breakfast is booming, and we see it coming into other ‘white-space’ areas. Even in foodservice, you see customers that never had a potato offering now selling potatoes. Potato wedges is a good example.

The frozen French fry segment is performing well . What are some of the factors contributing to that growth?
One thing we’re seeing a lot is that what’s old is new again, with a twist. Products like tater tots, which have been around forever, are being used to make “poutine tots.” Chefs are using them as ingredients to upgrade menu items, and consumers are using them to upgrade everyday meals. Also, all of our products are made from real potatoes. In Canada we process 4.5 billion potatoes a year, an enormous amount more than 150 farming partners. There’s a bit of a trend towards vegetarianism that also plays into it. Consumers love potatoes, and they’re using them more and more on different occasions.

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