Peruvian Onions

Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Sales potential is still potent and ever so ‘sweet.’

Being able to provide consumers with a 52-week consistent supply of any fresh product in the produce department is an obvious boon, but with sweet onion sourcing from Peru, seamless transitioning in the sweet onion category has become a relied upon reality. With Peruvian shipments beginning around mid-August and continuing through February, retailers are assured a fresh stream of sweet onions.

It’s hard to overlook the impact onions have in retail grocery. As the third-highest consumed fresh vegetable in the United States, USDA reports U.S. per capita consumption at close to 22 pounds per year, an increase of 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, and a whopping 79 percent increase in consumption in the past three decades. As a growing category, sweet onion potential is clear.

Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral, Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, NY, says sweet onions are the anchors of the bulk onion category. Cady, who has been with Tops since 1990, says, “because they are available 52 weeks a year now, we don’t miss a beat … sweet onions continue to be our No. 1 bestseller in the onion category.”

For roughly 20 years, U.S. growers have been working closely with Peruvian farmers, contracting and partnering to improve and grow the Peruvian sweet onion market. Along with being a trade-friendly country with the United States, Peru has a near perfect climate for sweet onion growing – sandy soils, arid desert temperatures and low humidity. With the ability to grow two to three crops per year, Peru is a perfect complement to the existing sweet onion domestic market.

According to the USDA, Peru accounts for more than 20 percent of fresh onion imports to the United States, just behind Mexico (62.3 percent). In 2016, Peru exported 253 million pounds of onions to the United States, with a value of $47.4 million. Although last year some growers in Ica, Peru, were hit with a fungus, which prevented the onions from reaching a peak size, there have been no reports of sizing issues or crop shortages for this coming season.

“This season’s early sweet onion crop from Peru is starting to trickle into the East Coast ports,” according to Marty Kamer, president, Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, PA, a grower, packer, shipper and marketer of sweet onions, among other fruits and vegetables, and a division of Los Angeles-based Progressive Produce, LLC. “Light volumes in September are expected due to some cooler temps during the growing cycle. Volumes are likely to normalize in October.” Kamer says it’s too early in the season to make a broad statement of quality or yields for the entire crop. “Initially we are really excited about what we see — size profile might be slightly smaller than normal due to cooler temps. However, initial quality and flavor profile are outstanding.”

Troy Bland, chief operating officer of Bland Farms, LLC, Glenville, GA, is expecting a good marketable Peruvian onion crop for 2018/2019. “Some overcast weather has caused low volume in getting started. We’re expecting an $18-$20 crop that should hold throughout the season.” While yields may be slightly lower, with sizing following, he doesn’t expect any significant change in sizing.

Historically Speaking

Peruvian sweet onions are the closest relative to the Vidalia onion in terms of taste, sweetness, color and shape. With similar climate, soil and growing practices, the Granex varieties can be grown in the Southern Hemisphere, replicating the flat-type sweet yellow onion popularized by the Vidalia.

The Granex variety of onions — our present day sweet onions — are a relative of the Bermuda Yellow onion, originally of Italian origin. In 1933, in search of varieties better adapted to South Texas, the Onion Breeding Program was initiated at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Winter Garden, TX, southwest of San Antonio. Fast-forward to the early 1950s and the serendipitous discovery in Georgia of a sweet onion produced from Texas-bred Granex transplants — the Vidalia onion had been discovered.

Brian Kastick, national sales director of Hillcrest Produce, out of Peckville, PA, markets under the OSO Sweet label. Hillcrest contracts and partners with growers in Peru. “Because the growing region is close to the equator, there is a long and consistent window for Peruvian onions, which makes it easy for consumers to always have fresh product,” he explains. “Growers are sowing or harvesting for nine months, which is the key to retailers being able to manage inventory.”

Keeping a favorite variety consistent in flavor, quality, size and appearance is key to continuing to grow the category. “The consumer market has decided the flat shape is indicative of what a sweet onion is,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist for Potandan Produce, LLC, Idaho Falls, ID. Breimeister, who has been with Potandan since April, was brought on for a new venture; bringing Potandan forward as a leader in sweet onion sales. Potandan, which holds the exclusive licensing rights to the Green Giant brand in fresh onions, is working with Breimeister to improve onion category consistency through the Peruvian onion deal.

Working The Fan Base

Onions are a natural winner according to studies conducted for the National Onion Association, the legislative voice for the domestic onion industry. “Consumers find onions to be convenient, versatile, and of excellent quality and value. They also view onions as healthy and flavorful. These trends can guide retailers to improved onion movement and sales,” says René Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association, Greeley, CO.

Because onions are seldom bought on impulse, retailers reach consumers through in-store ads and other channels including social media to boost sales. “In store promotions are also important as they serve to remind shoppers to stock up,” says Hardwick.

As one of the most versatile vegetables available, onions have become a mainstay in foodservice and popular cooking shows. Sweet onions also have become popular in home canning, with exotic and interesting recipes popping up on blogs, in cookbooks and in social media. Paying attention to current food trends is one way to keep the message relevant.

Whether eaten raw, caramelized, marinated or roasted, onions are found in recipes for every meal of the day. Onions are represented in nearly every ethnic cuisine, and open up opportunities for retailers to reach an ethnically diverse audience.

Hardwick recommends using seasonality to move onions. “Pair onions with seasonally appropriate items to create effective cross-merchandising sales opportunities.”

During warmer months, consumers tend to prepare more salads, salsas, and lightly cooked or grilled dishes, creating cross-merchandising opportunities in meat and seafood. Highlighting sweet onions in the deli section and bakery can lead to an increase in sales volume. During cold weather months, don’t forget to pair with soup and stew ingredients, roasts and rotisserie chickens. Keeping dry onion displays alternated with color and focused around the specific season will continue to draw consumers.

John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, located in Reidsville, GA, shares the RealSweet philosophy: “Retailers can capitalize on sweet onion sales by keeping them on shelves all year long, thus providing consumers with Peruvian sweet onions during the fall and winter months. Peruvian sweet onions have increased in popularity due to the seamless transition following Vidalia season.” Shuman maintains a full-time staff in Peru in order to operate a safe and efficient supply chain.

Whether through point-of-sale materials, signage or recipe tear off pads, offering consumers information on the health benefits of onions and opportunities for meal solutions can translate into more robust sales. Onions are low calorie (about 44 calories in a medium onion) and high in antioxidants. According to studies done in both the UK and United States, onions can facilitate detoxification, boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.

Tops Friendly Markets, through its partnership with RealSweet (Shuman Produce) on their Peruvian supply, works with Shuman to consistently run seasonal ads. Cross-merchandising is critical, according to Cady, “Onions will cross-merchandise with anything; there are so many ways to display and promote.”

Although high-graphic bins and shippers are an excellent way to call attention to sweet onions, Keith Baratier, category manager with Price Chopper, Schenectady, NY, is in a unique situation. Price Chopper is in the process of rolling all of its stores over to the ‘Market 32’ format, with a clean, open floor plan that is not shipper-friendly. Says Baratier, “Clear, crisp signage and sharp-looking displays become more critical with this type of floor plan.” Price Chopper promotes its bulk, 2-pound and 5-pound Peruvian onions through a program with Shuman Produce.

“Due to increased demand of year round sweet onions, many customers have found it advantageous to carry bulk or loose jumbo sweet onions as well as consumer bags of medium sweet onions.” He recommends using this ‘multi-size strategy’ as well as end cap displays and value-added product offerings. “Offer consumers multiple buying options and ensure that sales lift,” he says.

Transitioning from one sweet onion season to another can be a seamless process, according to Cady, who likes to keep displays separate, mainly because of country-of-origin labeling. “When we transition from Vidalia to Peru, we’ll run two displays until we run out of Vidalia, but the onion types blend together so there is no visual difference.”

Storage And Handling

Because the water content and soluble solids are much higher in sweet onions than in their counterparts, careful storage and handling need to be taken into account. A shorter shelf life demands a keen eye for rotation, and while cascade displays are eye-catching, because of a susceptibility to bruising, careful displays at retail are a must. Keep sweet onions stored in a cool, dry and well-ventilated area. Sweet onions prefer a storage temperature of 45-55 degrees F. Keep your sweet onions away from other vegetables that release water, such as potatoes.

No Onion’s An Island

Although Peruvian sweet onions are an excellent addition to the produce department, they are still just one piece of the category puzzle. National Onion Association’s Hardwick explains, “Domestic supplies are ample to supply the American consumer, and it’s improving all of the time. While the Peruvian onions help fill some gaps in lack of sweet onion supply, new domestic sweet onion programs are being developed to fill the window when domestic supplies are low.”

Selling sweet onions year-round requires planning, forethought, partnerships and strategic action. Retailers are encouraged to utilize the Retail Dietitian’s Tool Kit, a digital media kit designed by the National Onion Association. Hardwick says the kit will, “help dietitians and consumers understand the nutritional benefits and versatility of onions.”

Regional supply limitations and quantities are important to remember since product can vary from coast to coast. Derrell Kelso, general manager of Onions, Etc., out of Stockton, CA, says Peruvian onions are not as popular on the West Coast, more due to the cost of freight than flavor or quality. “The good news,” he says, “is seed companies are continuing to improve in the development of sweet onions. Now, we have excellent sweet onions from Washington and Oregon, and they are doing well.”

Sweet Onion Availability

Peru – early September – mid February
Honduras – early February – late March
Chile – Available early February – late March
Mexico – early February – mid April
Georgia Vidalia Sweet Onions – mid April – mid September
California Sweets – early June – mid August
Washington Walla Walla Sweet Onions – mid June – late August
Oregon – mid August – mid March
Nevada Sweets – mid August – late December
Texas – 1015`s – mid March – mid May