CARIBOU, Maine — After being snapped up by a national restaurant chain, Maine potatoes have 103 new places to call home.
Ninety Nine Restaurants, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, is serving Maine potatoes exclusively across all of its locations.
In what has been a stellar season for Maine’s top crop, from a record harvest to expanded marketing opportunities, the deal means Maine potatoes will be in restaurants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York — as well as in Auburn, Augusta, Biddeford and Topsham in Maine.
For all of its baked potatoes, Ninety Nine is using a variety familiar to Aroostook County: the Caribou Russet. A mix of other varieties will go into mashed potatoes, skins and french fries.
“We are thrilled that the Caribou variety offers such culinary value to Ninety Nine and its customers and that it grows very well on our farm,” said Jeff Irving of Irving Farms Marketing in Caribou. “It is one step forward in continuing to supply our key markets with high quality potatoes for many years to come.”
The process started a couple of years ago when Irving drove to Woburn with samples and met Ninety Nine management. They were happy with the potatoes and the deal was in the works — and then COVID-19 struck, which threw the food service realm into chaos. As the environment began to settle a bit, they revisited the plan.
“The product really sold itself. Add in that our farm operation is in Caribou, Maine, and it was an ideal fit,” Irving said Friday.
Irving Farms is a five-generation grower, established in 1936. The operation has grown Caribou russets for about five years, and this year devoted about half of its 920 acres to the variety. They have their own fleet of trucks and ship directly to Ninety Nine’s warehouses.
“We are happy to support local, and it makes that decision even easier when the local product is one of the best,” said Charlie Noyes, president of Ninety Nine Restaurants.
Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery said it’s important to offer locally sourced food.
“We are thrilled with this relationship and are excited about the future,” Flannery said. “It has been a delight to work with their team to ensure quality local agriculture being used in their restaurants.”
The Caribou Russet was developed by the University of Maine potato breeding program along with the Maine Potato Board. It was bred to be disease- and pest-resistant, according to the potato board. Dr. Gregory Porter, professor of crop ecology and management at UMaine and leader of the breeding program, named the potato after the city of Caribou.
The variety launched in 2016 as a dual-purpose potato, which means it serves well both fresh and in making processed potato products. Caribou Russets debuted at Bangor’s Maine Harvest Festival that year and quickly sold out.
“The Caribou Russet is a potato variety that is in high demand,” Irving said. “It’s what we call a potato lover’s potato because the natural flavor is top notch.”