Peruvian Onions — Maintaining The “Sweet” Year Round

Originally printed in the September 2019 issue of Produce Business.

All signs point to a good crop of average volume that’s expected a little earlier than usual, making for a “smooth transition” from U.S. product.

The Peruvian onion is waiting to hit its stride. A relative of the well-known Vidalia sweet onion from Georgia, the two share a similar seed line. Consumers discover it in the fall, following the end of the traditional season for Vidalias and Walla Walla sweet onions from Washington.

Onions, as with all vegetables, are a part of the new Produce for Better Health Foundation campaign, Have a Plant. The Peruvian onion and other onion varieties provide vitamin C, along with plenty of phytochemicals and the type of fiber that helps nourish intestinal bacteria. An increased marketing commitment on the part of grower/shippers and retailers could firmly anchor this onion in the family of fall vegetables.

Solid Supply
Grower/shippers align in their assessment of this year’s sweet onion crop. Michael Blume, sales representative for Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, PA, notes the crop looks good and is of average volume. Keystone brought in the first onions in early August and anticipates ample supplies through the end of February as cultivation and harvesting move up the long Peruvian coast as temperatures warm.

Michael Cutler, of Michael Cutler Co., Olyphant, PA, likewise expects a good crop with several months of promotable volume. He notes this year’s crop is hitting the marketplace earlier because of a mild winter in Peru.

“This matches well with the demand in the U.S. onion market for sweet onions,” says Cutler. “There will be a smooth transition from Vidalia and other domestic programs into the Peruvian onion.”

Prominent in the Peruvian onion industry, Shuman Farms in Reidsville, GA, imported nearly 1,100 containers of Peruvian sweet onions for U.S. distribution in 2018-2019. John Shuman, president and chief executive, expects this year to be similar.

“This season, we plan on having similar production to last year,” says Shuman. “Containers, however, were not loaded as scheduled in early August, but we are confident volumes will improve, and we will be back to normal supplies and sizing by the end of August. Quality on the early harvest has been excellent.” Because of the weather-related slow start of the season, shipments of early Peruvian onions included a higher-than-usual percentage of mediums and smaller jumbos.

“We’re facing an overall shortage of onions industrywide, so that could keep prices a bit higher,” says Blume. “Generally, Peruvian sweet onions can be promoted as $0.99 to $1.69 per pound.”

Stabilizing The Market
Shuman labels Peruvian sweet onions as the premium sweet onion during the fall and winter months. “Combine fall/winter Peruvian sweet onions with spring/summer Vidalias of similar shape, color, and flavor profile, and you have an 11-month supply providing category consistency,” he says. “This consistency can be used to educate consumers on what to look for in a sweet onion and will drive sales for everyone for both types of onions.”

“If retailers merchandise Peruvian sweet onions the same way they do with Vidalias, they’ll never see a decrease in sales,” says Delbert Bland, owner and president, Bland Farms, Glennville, GA. “That is why Bland Farms sees no difference in the volume in the fall versus spring and summer.”

Does Origin Matter?
The short answer is no.

“Customers may prefer domestic sweet onions, but the Peruvian onion is recognized by its shape, color and overall appearance as a high quality sweet onion and is the only true sweet available in the marketplace after August,” observes Cutler. “The growing conditions in Peru are perfect for sweet onions. Arid conditions, warm days and cool nights all contribute to overall quality and sweetness. What differentiates Peruvian sweet onions is the stability of supply for a long, seven-month time period, allowing retailers to focus on ad planning, promotions and sales rather than the source of supply.”

Bags And Bins
Peruvian onions are available in a limited number of retail options. Grower/shippers import the onions in 50-pound sacks of sweet onions and regrade them into 40-pound shippers plus consumer bags, with the 3-pound consumer bag being the most popular size. “Shoppers with one- or two-person households prefer to purchase loose onions as they need them, but families really like the 3-pound bag,” says Rob Ybarra, director of produce and floral for Coborn’s, a retail chain of 26 stores based in St. Cloud, MN. “We often put the 3-pound bag on promotion.”

Shout Out Sweetness
Consumers who are dedicated users of Vidalia onions are the ideal targets for Peruvian onions.

“Peruvian onions offer an excellent continuation of the traditional sweet onion season because they are very, very similar in appearance and in taste to a Vidalia,” says Bland. “In Peru, we grow the same identical variety as the Vidalia. Since the seasons in Peru and Georgia are opposite, we come right out of Vidalia season and go straight into Peru’s season never missing a beat. Consumers get the same wonderful sweet onion with concentrated flavor every day.”

Capturing Key Consumers
Peruvian onions are more widely available in the Eastern half of the United States. “The sweet onion program starts earlier in the season in eastern states and smoothly transitions right from Vidalia season,” says Cutler of Michael Cutler Co. “The West Coast marketplace starts later, after the late summer harvest is complete in both Nevada and Washington.”

Keystone Fruit Marketing’s Blume notes, “While a lot of East Coast consumers recognize Vidalia and West Coast consumers recognize Walla Walla, more and more consumers have been educated that Peru’s onions are similar. Side by side with Vidalias or Walla Wallas, and whole or cut, consumers can’t tell the difference.”

Blume stresses the importance of retailers identifying sweet onions in the store with labeling and signage to help consumers find what they want. “Sweet onions drive the category so retailers need to identify them properly,” says Blume.

Bland also notes, “We’ve seen more growth on the West Coast in the past five years due to our focus on educating West Coast buyers about the similarities between Vidalias and Peru sweet onions. We bring a lot of onions into the country through Georgia and also California and New Jersey, so we are able to distribute them across the country.”

The Retailer Partnership
“Our retail partnerships allow us to work together with retailers to plan promotional time periods for Peruvian onions,” says Blume. “We have been successful because we can offer consistent, season-long quality and supply at fair prices for retailers. They pay $0.60 to $0.70 per pound delivered, giving them some flexibility in setting pricing. Merchandising and display is up to the retailers,” he says.

“I am excited about sweet Peruvian onions in the fall, and I am willing to pay extra for this onion that consumers love because flavor matters,” says Ybarra of Coborn’s. “We’re all about Peruvian onions during the season. Apart from our promotions, though, we do not have special displays or signage about the onion like we do with the Vidalias. We would welcome a partnership with a distributor or trade association with the resources to help us tell people about Peruvian onions.”

Patrick Mills, director, produce and floral, Lucky’s Market, a 39-store national retail chain based in Niwot, CO, looks for ways to educate the customer about all fruits and vegetables, including Peruvian onions. “We promote them in-store, advertise, and, most importantly, sample. Tastings teach customers about food. The No. 1, hands-down strategy is to get a product into the customer’s mouth.”

Display Opportunities
A well-placed display can help grab the attention of consumers who otherwise might not notice Peruvian sweet onions or might mistake them for other types of onions. G&R Farms, Glennville, GA, decorates its consumer packs with the Andes Mountains. Shuman Farms offers a wide variety of packaging options for retailers, including large display bins, consumer bags, display-ready containers, and cartons designed to create meal solution opportunities in the produce department and drive incremental sales. “Consumers buy with their eyes, so beautiful packaging and a quality product are still keys to driving sales,” advises Cutler. He notes demand is waning for in-store signage.

Value-Added Benefits
Value-added opportunities for Peruvian onions such as chopped, sliced, and in stew and stir-fry blends build awareness and encourage trial. Bland Farms extends the visibility of sweet onions with dressings and snacks that feature shopper-focused messaging and graphics that celebrate the values and history of its company. This provides retailers with an attractive secondary display for cross-merchandising, and it’s a great way to promote premium sweet onions all year long. Whole or cut, sweet onions can be cross-promoted in the meat, poultry and fish departments with menu ideas and recipe cards.

Community Benefits
Shuman Farms is proud of the positive impact of its Peruvian sweet onion program on the economic growth of the Southeast. The company imports its sweet onions through the Port of Savannah (GA), helping to support area jobs. Peruvian onions also enable Shuman Farms to maintain a year-round labor force that is highly skilled in the packing and distribution of sweet onions. The economic contribution to the job market is especially important to retail partners in the Southeast.

Shuman Farms also is active in produce industry initiatives. In 2002, Shuman founded Produce for Kids, an organization centered on educating families about the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, while raising money for charitable causes. Since the start of Produce for Kids, the organization has raised more than $6.5 million to benefit children and families, including those affected by hunger through Feeding America. Shuman is a brand partner of this year’s Power Your Lunchbox campaign and will be highlighted, along with other brand partners, in social media outreach throughout August and September.

ecipe Ideas
As temperatures drop, the use of sweet onions in recipes changes. “Our customers look for stew and hot meal ingredients as the weather gets colder,” says Sal Selletto, produce manager at Super Foodtown, Sea Girt, NJ, which is part of the 69 stores under the Foodtown banner. “People associate Vidalias with spring and ask about Vidalias all year long, so they’re surprised when we introduce them to sweet onions in the fall.”

Mills of Lucky’s Market says, “Our customers use Peruvian sweet onions more as a recipe addition in the fall, compared to summer when they add them to sandwiches, burgers, guacamole and salads. They have a good sweet onion at an unexpected time of year.”

Peruvian sweet onions can be used in any recipe that calls for Vidalias. The website includes more than 100 recipes for sweet onions. Among the highest rated are French onion soup, roasted sweet potatoes and sweet onions, grilled onions and potatoes, baked sweet onion dip, and roasted beets and sweet onions. The Produce Moms website includes recipes for a sweet onion casserole, sweet onion quiche, sweet onion risotto, pork tenderloin and onion jam sliders, and a sweet onion dip. This year’s Power Your Lunchbox campaign from Produce for Kids features two recipes with sweet onions from partner Shuman Farms, wonton taco cups and pizza pasta salad lunchbox.

Miriam Rubin, a food writer and recipe developer in Ghent, NY, uses sweet onions in place of dry onions in most recipes. “In the fall, I might feature thin sliced or chopped sweet onions mixed with a touch of heavy cream and fresh herbs as a topping for pizza. Quartered sweet onions work well in a medley of roasted fall vegetables. I’ve added them along with cabbage to a sheet pan dinner of chicken thighs marinated in sriracha and soy sauce. Other easy dishes include a deep-dish sweet onion pie, a quick vinegar pickle to top quesadillas or fish tacos, and a pureed soup of squash, apple and sweet onion. Best of all, I don’t cry when slicing sweet onions.”