Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of Produce Business.
The benefits of marketing sweet onion category leader.
Shoppers eagerly look forward to the start of the Vidalia onion season and wait eight months for them to arrive at their stores. When they begin hitting store shelves, the “King of the Sweet Onions” brings a lot of excitement into the produce department.
The legendary Vidalia sweet onion is unique for possessing a mild flavor that has made it an essential ingredient for a wide range of dishes – and in produce departments.
In 2018 on his Food Network television show, celebrity chef Bobby Flay said the following about Vidalia onions: “Vidalia onions aren’t just the most famous onions in the world; I think they may be the only famous onions in the world.”
The sweet onion accounts for an overwhelming percentage of retail sweet onion sales and is critical in ringing-up additional supermarket sales.
“Without a doubt, Vidalias are the star (of sweet onions),” says Sal Selletto, produce manager at the Super Foodtown of Sea Girt, NJ, a part of the Middletown, NJ-based Food Circus/Foodtown. “Vidalias are a sign of spring. We tend to put them up front. It’s that name. When people hear that, they know they’re the premier sweet onion.”
GEORGIA GROWN TREAT
The timing of when the Vidalia sweet onions hit the market is opportune for spring and summertime promotions. Growers typically begin harvesting in mid-April. Shipments begin immediately during harvest. To extend availability, growers place onions in controlled-atmosphere storage for shipments through late summer and early fall. Most shippers sell from storage through Labor Day. Some, however, store shipments for customers into November, says Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia, GA-based Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC).
“The main thing about the Vidalia onion deal is we have the prime part of the window in the spring when people are just beginning to get out from the cold winters and enjoy outdoor things like barbecuing,” says Stafford. “We are the only one at that time that provides a good supply.”
It’s difficult to overestimate Vidalias’ importance. “The Vidalia onion is important to the sweet onion industry because it is the onion that created the category,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Farms, Inc., Reidsville, GA. In the 1980s, Vidalia onions gained distribution throughout North America, and its popularity built the largest sweet onion industry in the world. “Its mild, sweet flavor and its unique, flat shape and yellow skin help set it apart from the Western cooking onion,” explains Shuman.
Vidalia’s reputation transcends sweet onions, says Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA. “There isn’t any doubt in anyone’s mind that when you think of sweet onions, you think of Vidalias,” he says. Vidalias constitute 60 percent of category sales, says Bland. “They only make you cry when they’re gone,” he says. “That speaks for itself.”
When Bland travels, people he sits next to on airplanes will ask what he does. Bland tells them he grows Vidalia onions vs. onions. “Growing Vidalia onions, that sets you apart,” he says. “That right there is all you have to say. They treat you like some kind of rock star.”
Vidalias possess a strong reputation. “The Vidalia has the best name recognition among sweet onions,” notes Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Hendrix Produce, Inc., which grows and ships from Metter, GA. “Vidalias are well-known. You could say they’re the King of the Sweet Onions.”
Offering Vidalia onions is critical for anyone in the sweet onion deal. “The Vidalia deal is so big and so important, it really sets the tone for the year,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist with Potandon Produce LLC, headquartered in Idaho Falls, ID. “If you’re going to be a sweet onion player, you’re not a player unless you’re involved in Vidalias. If you want to be involved in sweet onions — and potatoes and onions in general — you have to be tied into the Vidalia deal.”
Vidalias are well-known. “Vidalia onions are often imitated but never duplicated,” says Stafford. “Vidalia onions have a texture no one else can get. Ours’ taste better.”
Shoppers know Vidalias well. “Vidalia onions are widely recognized by consumers, allowing our retail partners unique merchandising opportunities during the summer months,” says Kelby Werner, operations manager at Glennville’s G&R Farms.
The Vidalia reputation remains strong. “The Vidalia onion is a name people recognize and a name that people look for and anticipate,” says Steve Roberson, president of Hazlehurst, GA-based Roberson Onion Corp. “It’s still the best sweet onion.”
That anticipation is real, says Lauren Dees, marketing manager, Generation Farms, Lake Park, GA. “There is a definite buildup of excitement starting early spring,” she says. “People are certainly excited to know when they can expect to see their favorite sweet onion.”
What makes a Vidalia onion special? The onion’s distinctive taste is derived from a combination of weather, water and soil uniquely found within 20 South Georgia counties. “We have a low sulphur soil,” says Stafford. “It all seems to be just a perfect matchup for a good sweet onion. It really works.”
In 1931, Moses Coleman expected to dig a regular hot onion from the Southeast Georgia ground but discovered his onions were sweeter than others. Others began growing them. As people traveling through the region who purchased them would tell others where they found them, requests increased and Vidalia’s reputation spread. When the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain began selling them, sales increased. The deal became much bigger during the 1980s.
“We’ve come a long way since the Vidalia onion’s accidental discovery in the 1930s, says Julie McPeake, chief communications officer for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “While still grown with great care, you no longer need to travel to South Georgia each spring and summer to purchase this flavorful sweet onion. We are proudly found on shelves across the United States and select locations in Canada.”
The Vidalia onion inspired development of other sweet onions. “It was so well-received and preferred by consumers that retailers started to demand a year-round sweet onion program,” says Shuman. “So we looked for areas outside of Georgia where we could grow sweet onions with similar characteristics of the Vidalia onion, and finally landed in Peru. Now we are able to provide sweet onions to retailers and consumers 12 months out of the year.”
Vidalia onion growers have made a name for themselves, says Jeff Brechler, salesman with Edinburg, TX-based J&D Produce, Inc., which markets Vidalia onions grown by M&T Farms in Lyons, GA. “Vidalias have a strong name in the industry,” he says. “They’re particularly popular in the Midwest, on the Eastern Seaboard and in the New England states.”
That name recognition and rich history helps Vidalia sales. Lloyd Richter, a partner with Charlotte, NC-based Richter and Co., Inc., says he remembers 40 years ago when Charlotte shoppers could only purchase Vidalias from a handful of specialty grocers. “Their unique taste and mildness helped catch the imagination of a lot of people for fresh salads and cooking,” he says. “They’re a classic produce industry branding success.”
Vidalia sourcing helps relieve some of the trucking headaches for customers on the East Coast. “Grower-shippers in the Southeast are at an advantage over the West Coast due to the shorter food miles, which lowers the delivered cost in addition to delivering a fresher product,” says Generation Farms’ Dees.
Vidalia onions possess high importance for retail sales, says G&R’s Werner. “Vidalia onions have paved the way for every sweet onion on the market today,” he says.
There aren’t many consumers who haven’t heard of a Vidalia onion and don’t understand what they are, observes Richter. “The Vidalias do differentiate themselves from sweet onions elsewhere,” he says. “There are sweet onions from other areas, like Peru, which are certainly very good, but the magic is in the Vidalia name. The Vidalias still carry that aura other onions from other places don’t, even though those other onions may have a lot of the same qualities. They are unique, special and famous.”
Preserving that unique taste through varietal investments is critical, says VOC’s Stafford. “The end result is no matter how you market or promote something, when it gets to the consumer, all that’s gone,” he says. “The real test is when they slice it up and eat it. That’s the reason we have to produce what we preach.”
Maintaining that quality is crucial for marketing, says J&T’s Brechler. “Because the sweet onion has grown so much and gained in popularity, there are a lot of ‘imposter sweets’ that are showing up on the market,” he says. “People are saying there are sweet onions available from almost every state, it seems like. It goes back to the integrity of the seed varieties used and each grower, packer and shipper. Because sweet onions are produced year-round from multiple locations, a grower needs to remain true to those varieties that produce in a given time slot. They must maintain the integrity, no matter where it comes on any given onion out there, whether it is a Vidalia, a Walla Walla, or a Texas or California onion. The criteria need to be met.”
Vidalia onions possess a strong reputation for consistency. “The quality has improved over the past few years,” says Hendrix Produce’s Hendrix. “Our retail customers enjoy promoting them.”