Not all onions are created equal, and shoppers are adding more sweet onions to their grocery lists.
Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Onions can make you cry. But not sweet onions, which are celebrated for their mildness and deliciousness. The National Onion Association (NOA) calls them “the crown jewel” because of their limited availability and sweet flavor.
“They just have great natural sugars — they do not contain processed sugar. When Mother Nature does the work for you, it is so much better,” says René Hardwick, NOA’s director of public and industry relations in Eaton, CO.
Onions have a wealth of health benefits, too. They’re high in Vitamin C, and contain calcium, iron, folic acid and quercetin (a flavonoid in the antioxidant family). They provide dietary fiber and have a high protein quality.
“Onions are a vegetable powerhouse, trending in the top 10 biggest vegetable sellers, month after month,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210 Analytics, a market research firm based in San Antonio, TX. “Onions had a tremendous first pandemic year.”
Volume was 2.13 billion pounds for the 12 months ending Feb. 20, 2022. Sales were $2.5 billion, down 5% from a year ago but up 11.3% pre-pandemic.
The Information Resources Inc. (IRI) Integrated Fresh Report has recent annual sales of $386 million for sweet fresh onions, $145 million for Vidalia fresh onions, $6.9 million for Walla Walla sweet onions, and $6.8 million for Texas sweet fresh onions.
HARVEST STARTS IN TEXAS
Sweet onions grown in the U.S. are harvested and sold from March through August. Texas SpringSweet and SuperSweet (1015s) onions are harvested first, followed by Vidalias from Georgia, and Walla Wallas from Washington State.
Texas sweet onions start shipping in March, with the first to market harvested in late February.
“Texas onions have been around a long time,” says Mike Davis, owner of Tex Mex Sales LLC in San Juan, TX. “It is the first sweet onion that comes to market.”
The third-generation company has been growing Texas onions for more than 20 years, and packs and distributes the product to retail grocery stores in 40-pound cartons, and 2-, 3- or 5-pound consumer packages.
The organic market is growing, including for sweet onions.
The average store carries 24 unique onion SKUs, which is an increase of 2.1% over last year.
“Everything we do is organic,” says Dennis Holbrook, owner and president of Mission, TX-based South Tex Organics whose products include a TX1015 type called Texas Spring Sweets on the yellows. As a grower, packer and shipper, it sells to Whole Foods and Sprouts, and to distributors nationwide.
“There is a fairly narrow window in South Texas — we fill the gap from March to late April and then you have Vidalias coming through,” Holbrook adds. “We calculate our acreage based on volume that we feel can comfortably move during that season.”
VIDALIAS AND WALLA WALLAS
VidaIia onions, the official state vegetable of Georgia, started packing and shipping around April 12 this year. These onions get their sweetness from the low amount of sulfur in the soil where they are grown.
“It can only be called a Vidalia if it is grown in one of 20 counties in Georgia, and is only available from mid-April through September,” says Troy Bland, chief executive of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA. The huge Vidalia onion grower, shipper and packer says they represent one-quarter of the total Vidalia volume.
Little Bear Produce handles Little Bear Vidalia and Honey Sweet Onions, with farms in three states as well as Mexico and Peru. “We have customers in Florida who call us and say they prefer our sweet onions — it is a honey onion and it’s round. It is not so easy to cut a flat onion, especially for rings,” says Jimmy Bassetti, president of Little Bear Produce in Edinburg, TX.
Walla Walla onions, grown in Walla Walla, Washington, are harvested from June through August.
“We see Walla Wallas every year,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce director at New Seasons Market in Portland, OR. “It is a big deal during the summer season. There is a friendly competition between Vidalias, Walla Wallas, Big Os, Texas 1015Ys, for who has the sweetest onion every year.”
“The most recognized onion is the Vidalia sweet onion,” says Michael Blume, vice president of sales and marketing at Keystone Fruit Marketing in Greencastle, PA. “But you may get some pushback because people on the West Coast may say it’s Walla Walla. In the Midwest, the Vidalia and Walla Walla are both popular, as well as Texas-grown brands or Mayan Sweets.”
Keystone Fruit Marketing grows and markets two sweet onion brands from Washington State: Walla Walla River and Blue Mountain. Established in 1977, the company sells to retailers and wholesalers across the United States and most of Canada. Keystone harvests Mayan Sweets from Peru from August through March, and in Mexico from February through April. It markets them there, and brings some to the U.S.
PRICING, SUPPLY ISSUES
Like most industries and produce commodities, sweet onion growers face supply and pricing challenges.
“The short crop in the Northwest has put added pressure on the short crop in Mexico. This is due to planting and weather issues. I don’t see the overall onion supply getting back to normal levels until fall of this year. Pricing will remain high, freight rate is at historical highs with no relief in sight. The gas prices are as high as we’ve ever seen and there is a lack of available truck drivers,” says Blume.
“Labor is harder to find, fertilizer is up 300%, chemicals are up too. Companies will have to get more money for their onions,” says Davis of Tex Mex Sales.
Growers, shippers and distributors package sweet onions in different ways and likewise retailers present them both in bags and bulk.
“We have seen onions go from bulk display to bags with polyester on one side and mesh on the other side, which allows for some graphics,” says Holbrook of South Tex Organics, which offers a bagged label as Nature’s Pick and bulk product as Earth Born.
“We sell sweet onions in bulk. We do a few bags, but our market is more of an old-school bulk market,” says Fairchild of New Seasons Market.
Hardwick of NOA says sweet onions bruise easily due to their high water content, “so you definitely want to treat them with a little bit of kid gloves. The mesh bag does protect them better. But when they are loose, they put their best foot forward.”
Little Bear Produce developed a yellow mesh bag for sweet onions, to distinguish from the tangerine-colored mesh bag for Spanish onions.
“That bag really helped us increase the movement of the 3-pound bag and 5-pound bag. Sweet onions were sold for years in 40-pound boxes. By using the new bag, we increased to five pallets a week, then eight pallets a week,” says Bassetti.
In the past few years, retailers have invested in a larger assortment of onions, “which is where varieties such as small or sweet onions, but also value-added cut/diced onions, are making more frequent appearances. The average store carries 24 unique onion SKUs, which is an increase of 2.1% over last year,” says Roerink of 210 Analytics.
Many sweet onion companies work with retailers to execute strategies and accomplish goals.
“Keystone develops private label bags for numerous retailers, and customizes in whatever color mesh they want,” says Blume of Keystone Fruit Marketing.
Tex Mex Sales also does a lot of private label packing, “if that is what the retailer wants,” says Davis. “We work hand-in-hand with them on any promotion they want to do.” This includes participating in digital coupon promotions sent to an app.
Bassetti believes supermarkets that display sweet onions apart from Spanish yellow onions can improve customer awareness and increase sales.
“Some folks won’t eat a Spanish onion because too hot, it has a lot of acid. The sweet onion has less acid and is easier to eat raw — children and others can eat it,” he says, explaining why he favors clearly distinguishing between the two onion types.
Cross-merchandising with fruits, vegetables and meats can increase onion sales. For example, Bassetti says Little Bear Produce has cross-merchandised its onions with sausage and mushrooms.
“Some of our favorite pairings with our Vidalias are peaches, strawberries and watermelon in compotes and salads. They also pair well with all kinds of vegetables for a flavorful stir fry or on a colorful kebab for the grill,” says Bland of Bland Farms.
“Here in Texas, for Cinco de Mayo, it would make sense to market onions, tomatoes and avocados together,” says Davis of Tex Mex Sales.
From bins to POS material to advertising, there are many ways sweet onion producers support retailers.
“The Walla Walla is the only onion we do promotional activity on. There are some items that are iconic, like a Georgia peach or a Walla Walla onion,” says Fairchild of New Season Market.
Bland Farms offers signage, display bins, and advanced pricing to its retailers. It will soon launch the “World Champion Taste” promotion with Atlanta Braves pitcher Will Smith. Retail POS material will drive consumers to Bland Farms’ social media pages, where they can try for autographed baseballs and baseball game tickets. There will be display contests for retailers as well.
“Will is a Georgia native, so he knows and loves our Bland Farms’ Vidalia sweet onions. The Blands also love baseball. The start of baseball season ties in perfectly with the start of Vidalia season,” says Bland.
LG Herndon Jr. Farms, a grower and shipper of Vidalia onions in Lyons, GA, will have a charity promotion for two weeks before Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The company will donate 5% of gross sales, up to $25,000, to the Gary Sinise Foundation. Actor Gary Sinise played Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, and his foundation has programs to support, strengthen and entertain military, veterans and first responders.
“We found out what the foundation was about and think they’re doing awesome work,” says John Williams, director of sales and marketing, LG Herndon Jr Farms. “Gary Sinise has not had a sponsor in the agricultural space, and is excited about it.”
Co-branded Vidalia mesh bags will carry the Herndon Farms and Gary Sinise Foundation logos, and have a QR code consumers can scan to learn more and donate to the foundation. To add a creative touch, the code is housed in an onion-shaped graphic.
Making Meals With Sweet Onions
Consumers gravitate toward sweet onions for their mild, crisp, juicy flavor. Walla Walla, Vidalia, Texas1015 and other varieties are ideal as meal toppers and main ingredients.
“I love cutting them in half, drizzling them with good olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary and baking them until tender,” says James Schend, Taste of Home, deputy editor, culinary, based at the cooking magazine’s test kitchen in Milwaukee, WI. “Before serving as a side dish, I’ll splash a little balsamic vinegar on top.
Sweet onions are often used raw in sandwiches, but supermarkets can highlight the product as a complement to fruits and vegetables. “Vidalias can be added to just about any dish for added flavor, sweetness and nutrition,” says Troy Bland, chief executive of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA.
The onion works well in soups, casseroles, quiches, cornbreads and many other dishes.
“I think they’re best used in dishes that don’t have a lot of competing flavors. Since their flavor is pretty mild, it’s easy to drown it out,” Schend says. “Use them in dishes where they are the star.”
Produce departments often promote sweet onions for cooking and grilling. “We’ll do a periscope-type of sign above the onions,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce director at New Seasons Markets in Portland, OR. “It may be an 8×11 cardboard sign that reads ‘Grilling Season Is Here.’”
The National Onion Association (NOA) in Eaton, CO, has recipes for main courses like Aztec Pork and desserts such as Caramelized Onion Brandy Ice Cream at www.NaturesNinja.org. Sweet onions pair well with savory tastes, too.
“You can make sweet onion jam and pair it with sausage and cheese,” says René Hardwick, NOA’s director of public and industry relations. “You can make sweet onion hummus and put it on a nice wheat cracker or on carrots or celery.”
While some home chefs invest in slicers and dicers, when it comes to sweet onions, “I stick to a good, sharp knife and firmly believe that’s all you need,” Schend says.