SUPERMARKET'S SIGNATURE POTATO TAKES ROOT AS A CUSTOMER FAVORITE

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Superquinn was not happy with Ireland's potatoes, so the family-owned supermarket chain decided to get to the root of the matter and develop its own.The project gobbled up a lot of money and six years of trial and error, but it has been worth all the trouble, officials said. Sales of a family of signature potatoes are good and they've helped to cultivate customer loyalty.The potato

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Superquinn was not happy with Ireland's potatoes, so the family-owned supermarket chain decided to get to the root of the matter and develop its own.

The project gobbled up a lot of money and six years of trial and error, but it has been worth all the trouble, officials said. Sales of a family of signature potatoes are good and they've helped to cultivate customer loyalty.

The potato variety, for which Superquinn has exclusive rights, draws the same customers into the chain's stores week after week, said Paula Mee, food and nutrition manager, for the 18-unit chain.

"It has a strong following. Superquinn wanted a potato that tasted good and that no one else had, and it is a sales success," she added.

Carrying 11 or 12 different varieties at any one time, the chain -- which puts emphasis on fresh foods -- saw its own potato become a best-seller quickly. It easily outsells the other varieties, Mee said.

The Irish eat more than 5,000 tons of fresh potatoes a week, more than any other country in Europe. But their taste in potatoes differs dramatically from that of other Europeans, she said.

"We, in Ireland, prefer our potatoes to have a dry, floury taste, the way they used to be 30 years ago. Other countries want their potatoes to be moist and almost waxy."

Taste and texture were the attributes Superquinn was looking for, but it got more than it bargained for. The potato has other qualities that make it convenient for busy consumers to prepare.

"Its eyes aren't deep so it's easy to peel and it is suitable for every application, such as baking, boiling, microwaving and chipping," Mee said.

Not only that, but it's difficult to overcook the Superquinn potato because it doesn't break up as easily as other varieties.

The quest for the perfect potato began in early 1995. When no growers that the company contacted showed any interest in developing a potato for Irish tastes, Superquinn took on the job.

In partnership with one of its major suppliers, Country Crest, the supermarket chain began research and development with various growers. More than 100 varieties were grown in trial plots. If a variety didn't live up to the stringent specifications the project team had outlined, it was abandoned.

"It took three long years of research with potato varieties in Ireland and overseas to source the perfect seed for the variety," said a Country Crest representative.

Three years of field tests followed before the first commercially available crop was harvested in 1999. Superquinn had by that time acquired the full rights to the new variety in Ireland and was given permission to market it under the brand name of its choosing.

The potato variety was named "Oilean" which, in Gaelic, means island.

"In a companywide competition, the name was submitted by a chargehand [department manager] and we thought it was a good one. It is out on its own," Mee said.

Even the 12 growers who produce the potatoes exclusively for Superquinn prefer the variety to others because it has good resistance to disease and is easy to harvest, they said.

Superquinn prides itself on its innovations and outstanding customer service.

"We are considered by our customers to be a caring, family-run supermarket," said Mee.

She added that the company constantly keeps in touch with customers to get their feedback via "customer listening panels," market research and a customer helpline.

The majority of the chain's stores, which average 30,000 square feet, are located in the city of Dublin, and fresh food accounts for 65% of total sales, Mee said.