Success under the skin
When the van der Schaaf family first started growing Creamer potatoes, they planted the seed that became The Little Potato Company – introducing these delicious, versatile and nutritious potatoes to the Canadian and American consumer
If there is one ingredient that can be considered as a dietary staple, that is incredibly versatile and is a much-loved addition to most meals, it’s the potato. With a history stretching back to the Incas in around 8000 BC, these humble tubers have been adorning our tables for thousands of years, with almost every member of the public familiar with their taste and texture.
But not all potatoes are created equal, and Angela Santiago, CEO and co-founder of The Little Potato Company, and her family, have built their business around the delicious versatility of the Creamer varietal.
She began the story with some history about the company’s inception. “The business was started by me and my father in 1996, in Canada,” she said. “The premise was based on the fond memories he had of delicious small potatoes back in The Netherlands, but that he couldn’t find in this country. He and my mother had always been quite entrepreneurial (and it turned out I was too!) and as I had just graduated from University, he asked me to help them start a company that grew and sold these little potatoes.”
The particular breed that Jacob van der Schaaf was dreaming of was the Creamer – the smallest in the potato family. These little nuggets of flavour offer a naturally buttery taste and creamy texture, and are very easy to prepare, as they should be enjoyed with their skins on.
So, on a small, one-acre plot just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, Jacob and Angela began growing their first acre of Creamer potatoes by hand. “I very quickly fell in love with agriculture and potatoes and the whole purpose of actually being part of and growing something that is really good for people,” she added.
Local chefs became early fans of the little potatoes, followed by consumers and retailers, and demand soon overtook what Jacob and Angela could do themselves. They bought their first plant in 2000, and allied themselves with excellent farmers in Canada and the United States. They even successfully lobbied the government to allow for smaller packages of potatoes – a potato industry first – making the Creamers more convenient for consumers to store and use. “We are now in our 24th year and we have three packaging facilities, two in Canada and one in the US; we work with 30 growers and employ almost 400 staff,” noted Angela proudly.
So how did the company take something so well known, and make it more relevant to the families of today? It all comes down to size, flavour and convenience, according to Angela. “We all grew up eating potatoes, they are a comfort food, so we weren’t introducing something new that consumers needed to familiarise themselves with,” she agreed. “So our unique twist was the marrying of nutrition and health with expediency – our small potatoes don’t require peeling, they can cook in the microwave in five minutes, or be cooked in other multiple ways in 15-20 minutes.”
Angela referred to the nutritional aspect of the little potatoes, which is a subject very important to The Little Potato Company, as it is keen to educate consumers about the fact that not all potatoes are as valuable when it comes to nutrients. “Small potatoes in particular as you eat them with the skins on, are high in dietary fibre, high in potassium, a source of vitamin c and iron, and they are counted as a vegetable, which people can overlook,” she explained. “I think there is a full on trend happening, probably led by millennial and baby boomers, where people are much more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, and the effect food has on mental and physical health, and our products lend themselves very well to this movement.”
To ensure each serving contains the nutrient levels claimed on the package, each Little Potato Creamer varietal undergoes third party nutritional testing, and indeed, this serves as an example of just one of many ‘behind the scenes’ activities that make The Little Potato Company so special. Furthermore, as Angela highlighted, the company prides itself on continually creating and growing its own proprietary potato varietals, to which it owns the exclusive rights. Angela’s younger brother, Joel van der Schaff, now runs this part of the business -Tuberosum Technologies – a potato research and breeding company.
“From when we started out we very quickly understood that to get the best potatoes we had to marry genetics to the end product, and so we started three propagation programmes in the world, one in Chile, one in The Netherlands and one in Canada. We produce potatoes that lend themselves to being small, so small tubers with a high tuber count per plant, and we combine the convenience of a small potato with agronomic excellence, to ensure maximum taste and nutrition. The consumers don’t see these activities when they pick up a bag of potatoes, but it is all these things that we are doing within our four walls that are making our products different and unique.”
What’s more, The Little Potato Company team ensures that new offerings come to market every year, each with its own distinctive taste and colour profile. “We are seeing a rise in demand in what I might call weird or unusual coloured potatoes, such as our yellow and purple Chilean Splash, or our Blue skin Creamer potatoes with yellow flesh and purple streaks. These are actually quite authentic historically if you look at the heritage of the potato, and where potatoes started in South America, they were all sorts of shapes and colours,” Angela explained.
The breeding programmes underway at The Little Potato Company are yielding some really interesting results nutrition-wise, too. “Some of the varieties that are blue all the way through, or red all the way through are really high in antioxidants, higher than blueberries, which is super exciting for us,” she added.
Having discussed the creation of new varietals of potatoes, Angela moved on to explain how that – the beginning of the process – is connected to the end result, with the products on the shelves within retail stores. “We are quite vertically integrated, starting with the breeding of new potatoes, then moving to the really passionate growers who use our proprietary varieties, then the field teams, onto the people in our own packing facilities and finally our sales and marketing team that directly sells to customers like big retailers. We have established a tight-knit value chain from farm to fork. It gives us a lot of influence over the quality of the end product, on how it’s taken care of, and loved along the process. This means that we can get really good, consistent quality, so if you buy a pack in New York or you buy it in LA, you are going to get the same potato experience eating it.”
Delicious and convenient
Of course, a happy customer eating the potatoes is the overall ambition of The Little Potato Company, and Angela and her team have found that the classic simplicity of small potatoes, in a bag, with nothing else added is still 29the best seller. “Another product where we are seeing a growth in popularity is the microwave tray, which is again, fresh potatoes, not precooked, that are put in a tray with a seasoning packet, and that can be ready in five minutes,” she added. Available in four flavours, the microwave trays feature among a whole host of other options, including fully cooked, pre-seasoned Creamer potatoes, crispy in only seven minutes, and oven-ready trays, that just need to be heated for 30 minutes and stirred before serving. With flavours including Garlic & Herb and Onion & Chive, the creative kitchen at The Little Potato Company continues to come up with delicious, convenient methods for people in their homes to enjoy small potatoes in a quick and easy way. The business even suggests a multitude of recipes on its website for customers in need of inspiration.
“We are seeing a lot of foodies, or more experimental people that wanted to try something new, purchasing our products, and the genuine appreciation of good food that is growing throughout the world really speaks to our product,” commented Angela. “They are finding that our little fresh potatoes are really easy to cook and very versatile, and they are good for every meal of the day, whether that is breakfast, lunch or dinner.”
Approaching new markets
It is easy to see where The Little Potato Company found the inspiration for its company maxim of ‘Feed the world better’ and Angela was enthusiastic about how the business wants to really live by this, rather than it just being a ‘bit of paper framed in the hallway’. “I see that as the purpose of the company, and while we have always been really supportive of our local food banks, in light of the demand for more food, and in particular, staple products with what is happening in the world now with coronavirus, we have doubled down on that so we are making an even more concerted effort to support our food banks, as well as pull out all the stops to make sure we can fulfil the demands of our customers and get products on the shelf.
“I think for us, today’s current events are a good reminder of how you should live and breathe the purpose of your company, and so we do focus on ‘Feeding the world better’ in everything we do. That would also include product innovation in creating new potato varieties and how can we make them more sustainable, growing more potatoes on an acre than we did five years ago because of genetics, and introducing them to more people across the globe.
“We think that there is opportunity for us worldwide, whether with our brand or with partnerships, we definitely believe that the purpose, not only for The Little Potato Company but for our family, is to go and feed the world better. We have not finished our work in the US, as we have only seen the beginning of this, but we are also importing our genetics into Australia to see what we can do there, in terms of building a market, and we want to look at Europe and all the different countries there, too. We know there are opportunities for our genetics in different parts of the world and if we want to remain true to why we wake up in the morning, then we do have to look at how we can continue to Feed the world Better with little potatoes.”