The Vidalia Cousin: Peruvian Onions

Peruvian Onions

This import from the Andes makes the sweet vegetable available year-round.

Mayan Sweet Peruvian OnionsIf your customers like sweet onions from Vidalia, GA, they will most likely enjoy sweet onions from Peru.

Almost identical to the Vidalia in terms of taste, sweetness and color, the Peruvian onion has the characteristic of the flat granex-style onion and is grown in the Southern Hemisphere from the same seed variety as the Vidalia. Production of these onions is frequently supervised by Georgia growers.

“They’re similar to Vidalia,” says Derrell Kelso, president of Onions Etc., Stockton, CA.

“They’re grown by the same people using the same growing methods and cultural practices. It’s a very good onion; they’ve done a good job of establishing standards. Customers know what they are going to get.”

With its rich, fertile soil and desirable climate, Peru has become the counter-seasonal Vidalia, making it possible to offer genuine onions year-round.

“The Peruvian onions are a very big part of our sweet onion deal,” says John Williams, director of sales and marketing for L. G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Lyons, GA. “It allows us to stay in touch with our customers year-round. We start Peruvian onions in mid-August and continue until the first of February; we can ship them until March.”

For more than 30 years, Herndon Farms has grown Vidalia onions, along with sweet corn, green leafy vegetables and, more recently, sweet potatoes. The family owned farm stands behind the onions they grow in Peru. “In Peru, they use the Century variety, which is one of our best. It’s a very good onion,” says Williams.

Display Them and They Will Sell

There is no great trick to merchandising.

“The main thing to emphasize is it’s a similar seed to the one we use in Vidalia,” says Landes Bland, sales manager at Bland Farms in Glennville, GA. “The whole point is to provide the consumer with a true sweet onion the entire year. That’s why 20 years ago we started shipping the Peruvian onions.”

Bland Farms is a large grower-shipper of sweet onions and, according to the company’s website, “accounts for roughly half of the entire Vidalia sweet onion volume.” The farm does its own growing in Peru, with Georgia personnel making scheduled site visits to check in on quality. Bland Farms is said to be the first company to ship the crop year-round by growing in other areas of the Southern Hemisphere.

The Peruvian and Vidalia look different than their competition, and consumers expect a unique, mild and sweet flavor.

“People shop with their eyes,” says Brian Kastick, president of Oso Sweet, Charleston, WV. “You can see the Peruvian onions are fresh and flat, and the same color as the sweet onions they get in the spring and summer.”

In the past few years Peru has increased its reputation for quality produce, including sweet onions.

“We’ve been down here a few years, and we’re increasing,” says Kastick. “Peruvian produce in general is starting to be accepted; it is seen as equivalent to Chile.”

There is a logistical advantage in sourcing “off-season” product from Peru rather than from areas of South America that are a longer haul.

“They used to grow more in Chile,” says Williams. “They used to grow them in Chile after Peru, but that window isn’t there anymore, and shipping from Chile costs more than from Peru.”

Displays That Help

According to Kastick, the details are generally of little interest to most consumers; they just need to see that the product looks like the familiar best-tasting sweet onions.

“Go big to capitalize on one of today’s hottest trends — fresh produce, which is healthful, colorful and bursting with freshness,” says Marty Kamer, president of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, PA. “Nothing says ‘buy me’ like big, prominent bulk and consumer bag displays,” he adds.

In the produce department, it is worth the space and time to develop more than one eye-catching display for Peruvian sweet onions. “End caps, stand-alone, value-added product offerings, multi-size strategies and bagged displays offer consumers multiple buying options and ensure sales lift,” says Kamer.

Because Peruvian sweet onions are versatile, they provide a wealth of opportunity to drive sales of other produce items simply by cross-merchandising. The potential impact on the total ring of Peruvian sweet onion sales is nothing short of staggering.

“Research we’ve conducted with Nielsen Perishables Group, Chicago, indicates sweet onions drive sales of a variety of items, especially when marketed together,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, Reidsville, GA. “For example, consumers with sweet onions in their carts are more likely to purchase peppers, celery, tomatoes, mushrooms and bagged salad, as well as beef and chicken.

“A basket containing sweet onions is 40 percent larger than the average produce basket,” says Shuman. “Regardless of regional demographics, sweet onions continue to drive onion category sales and sales of other produce items.”

Shuman Produce is a grower in the heart of Vidalia country, marketing under the RealSweet label. “Our RealSweet Peruvian sweet onions are part of our year-round RealSweet sweet onion program and provide consumers with a high-quality sweet onion with a similar shape and flavor profile to the Vidalia during the fall and winter months,” says Shuman. “Peruvian sweet onions have increased in popularity due to following directly after Vidalia onion season.”

There are also opportunities to combine sales of sweet onions with a number of combinations of fruit.

“Don’t forget the fresh fruit baskets — they are terrific with fresh fruit,” says Kamer.

Consumers continue to find or learn about new uses for the Peruvian sweet onion, which translates into new opportunities for displays and cross-merchandising.

“Recent trends show sweet onions are a staple in many consumers’ kitchens and are a popular ingredient in some of the most creative home-cooked meals,” says Shuman. “They’re valued for their flavor and versatility in a variety of dishes.”

Young consumers are particularly interested in learning how to incorporate these onions in meals.

“Research conducted in 2015 by the Nielsen Perishables Group shows an increased consumption of fresh foods by adults, ages 18 to 34,” says Shuman.

“Today’s consumer is becoming more educated on the versatility of sweet onions and using them in a wide variety of recipes,” says Schuman of Schuman Produce.

The growing culinary media, electronic and print, is also helping open new opportunities for cross-promotion of Peruvian onions.

“Many promotions target the consumer, displaying tips on how to use onions to include recipes when possible,” says Kamer. “Celebrity chefs, cooking shows… all forms of media have brought awareness to fresh fruits and vegetables — onions are a big part of this awareness as a staple ingredient.”

Packs Of Many Sizes

The most common Peruvian onion pack is the 40-pound bulk box, which can easily be used for large, eye-catching displays in the produce department.

“Due to increased demand of sweet onions, many retailers have found it advantageous to carry bulk or loose jumbo sweet onions, as well as a consumer bag of medium-sized sweet onions,” says Keystone Fruit Marketing’s Kamer.

Bags for bulk may be the most common pack, but there is also an important role for consumer packages. According to L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms’ Williams, the 3-pound consumer bag is the most popular. These bags include nutritional or culinary information, as well as usage tips on the label to help with merchandising.

With a strong demand for sweet onions year-round, it is a good idea to line up supply well ahead of time.

“It’s gotten to the point retailers need to know in advance where they are sourcing them,” says Onions Etc.’s Kelso. “It’s a great program.”

The volume is about the same as it has been, according to Bland Farms’ Bland. “Around six years ago, we reached our peak. We still increase, but it’s gradual.”

Shippers report this year’s Peruvian onion crop looks strong with an ample harvest of high-quality larger onions.

“We will have adequate volume and size of onions for our core business,” says Kamer. Demand and high-quality sweet onions from Peru are expected to be excellent throughout the fall and winter selling season.”