Retailers have a greater range of premium onions all year.
Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Imported products have become an important part of the onion sector, as they bridge the period when domestic product is unavailable, while also providing promotional opportunities in the category.
Imports support retail onion merchandising, giving stores the opportunity to offer a greater range of premium onions all year. Given the growing popularity, which the Vidalia growers have been key to generating, sweet onions from Peru and Mexico can help keep onion sales strong. Imports from Peru run from August through December into early January. Mexico runs from late January into February.
Consumers in the United States expect produce to be available to them 365 days a year, even if that can’t be quite managed all the time. Still, the expectation is there, and the greater the expectation, the greater the execution required to meet it.
Seasons, Flushing, NY, a local supermarket, and convenience store chain, has an upscale orientation, and Zeke Kreitner, chief produce officer, maintains his onion presentation all year in its carefully maintained merchandising that incorporates imports.
“With onions, we’re mostly consistent,” he says. “We do change up the sweet onions to the Vidalias in and out of season, but we always carry a version.”
KEEPING CUSTOMERS HAPPY
Imports can play a critical role in keeping consumers happy across the calendar. Jeff Brechler, a sales representative for Little Bear Produce, Edinburg, TX, says the company is importing from Mexico and Peru.
Several years ago, Little Bear developed the HoneySweet brand through extensive natural crossbreeding. The company grows the branded sweet onions domestically and as part of its import program, so availability is year-round. The company also offers Vidalia onions from May to July, red onions in March and April and leeks from November through April.
Little Bear characterizes HoneySweet as the mildest onions on the market, with a pleasant, sweet flavor and none of the unpleasant, pungent bite. They provide all onion nutritional properties with a high vitamin C content and beneficial flavonoids like quercetin.
The major challenge Little Bear has faced over the past couple of years is logistics. With all the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the supply chain issues, costs became extreme, and even contracted rates were subject to addendums. “Our rates are still higher than they were pre-COVID, but they’re not as they were. Now, inflation, as a whole, has taken a grip,” says Brechler.
As for HoneySweet, the imported crop has been consistent.
“Looking at the last three or four seasons over there, it’s remained the same because HoneySweet is a program. If someone comes online, then we make the necessary adjustments to increase the acreage and satisfy their needs. The days of speculative plantings are gone,” says Brechler.
US GROWERS PLANT ABROAD
Bland Farms, Glennville, GA, has evolved with the onion sector. Once a seasonal operation, Bland Farms is now multinational, with onions coming in from Peru and Mexico. In the United States, Bland operates in Georgia, Texas, Washington, Pennsylvania and California. In its overall onion operation, Bland cultivates 2,000 acres of Vidalias domestically, 660 hectares (1,630 acres) in Peru and 400 hectares (988 acres) in Mexico. The company has grown its operations based on the rising demand for sweet onions enabled in the U.S., forming strategic growing partnerships.
The company also ships organic sweet onions all year, sourcing from multiple locations throughout the year.
“Each year, Bland Farms is leading with a consistent supply of our Premium Sweets, and the quality of our crop looks excellent,” says Sloan Lott, Bland Farms, director of sales.
“If you bite into a Peru onion and Vidalia onion, you can hardly tell the difference. They are the two sweetest onions that are produced in the world.”— Troy Bland, chief executive, Bland Farms, Glennville, GA
Peru has been a point of focus for Bland Farms. “If you bite into a Peru onion and Vidalia onion, you can hardly tell the difference,” says Troy Bland, chief executive. “They are the two sweetest onions that are produced in the world. Our agronomy staff has worked tirelessly over many years to cultivate this sweet onion in Peru, so we never miss a beat in getting the same wonderful, sweet onion to our retailers every day of the year.”
Delbert Bland, owner, Bland Farms, notes in Mexico and Texas, the company sources other varieties, such as Bodegas and Maxwells in Mexico. Globes tend to be a preferred crop among growers in Mexico.
According to John Shuman, president and chief executive of Shuman Farms, Reidsville, GA, its premium sweet onions from Peru hit grocery stores in the fall and continue to winter to provide fill-in time between Vidalia seasons.
In 1998, Shuman Farms became one of the first Vidalia growers to establish Peruvian farms to bring a sweet onion with a consistent look and flavor to grocery shelves throughout each year. Shuman Farms plants the same seed varieties in Peru as it does in Vidalia, GA, because of the country’s similar climate and sandy. It offers the Real Sweet brand and operates an organic sweet onion program.
MAY LOOK DIFFERENT
Little Bear’s Brechler says the development of the sweet onion part of the business and its extension overseas has had a positive impact on the market. However, education still is needed.
“Vidalia did a wonderful job of marketing that onion in that area, so much so that there is a misconception out there,” says Brechler. “We’re in Vidalia as well. But there’s a misconception that a sweet onion has to be flat. That’s not the case. The flavor is in the genetics. There are rounds, there are flats, there are globes. There’s even that work being done on reds.”
Having a brand that has loyalty and recognition “definitely helps open the door and gets you in,” Brechler says, but adds, “I think the product and consistency behind it is what keeps you in.”
Consistency is the key and basis of ongoing success, he says. “We’ve focused on the consistency of the flavor,” says Brechler. “So, basically, what we did is remove the guesswork out of that in-store shopping experience, knowing that every HoneySweet the consumer picks up is the same.”
Ensuring information is handed along the supply chain and eventually to the produce clerk in the store is important, he adds, so consumers get the right information in terms of, availability, for example.
“Consumers are savvy. They want to be close to the source. They don’t want you to push information on them, but they want the information to be accessible if they want to go find it.”
PROMOTIONS A KEY
Consumers need to be reminded premium onions are not just limited to one time of the year. As sweet onions aren’t center-plate items, the promotional activities retailers launch with them often don’t take a premium position. However, Brechler adds retailers can, and often do, take advantage of cross-promotional opportunities to get consumers to consider putting more onions in their shopping baskets.
Onions are cross-merchandised with anything from smoked sausage to bell peppers and in meal kits, so consumers who might otherwise shop strictly off the shopping list get some encouragement.
For Little Bear and its HoneySweet onions, Brechler says, “it’s trying to get your name out there more and more, and build familiarity with consumers,” adding with social media, “there’s a shift in which platform to use.”
Consumers need to be reminded premium sweet onions are not just limited to one time of the year.
For its part, Little Bear has presentations and recipes on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn, but also works with retailers to go on ad with 3- or 5-pound bags or bulk.
Among its recent promotional activities, Shuman Farms struck a deal to become the Official Sweet Onion Grower of the University of Georgia (UGA) and Georgia Southern University (GSU) athletic programs. The deal gave Shuman a platform to promote its sweet onions for college tailgating season. Shuman Farms will also be partnering with Ladd McConkey, wide receiver at UGA; Khaleb Hood, wide receiver at GSU; and Davis Brin, quarterback at GSU, to spread the word about Shuman Farm’s sweet onions.
For its part, Bland Farms promotes sweet onions all year, whether they’re sourced domestically or internationally. Lately, it has launched an initiative it dubbed the Gameday Sweetness Promotion. The grower partnered with The Big Green Egg with a contest, which will run through the Super Bowl, and supports retailers with dynamic POS materials and display contests. It will also feature contests through social media. The company is also offering game day recipes featuring Bland’s Premium Sweet Onion. In October, Bland Farms also supports Breast Cancer Month with a full line of pink bags, boxes, PLU’s and bins.