The onion industry has an aggressive approach to increasing product use in restaurants, according to Kim Reddin, director of industry relations with the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association.
As an example, Reddin cited a promotion the association ran in conjunction with the Los Altos, Calif.-based Black Angus Steakhouse chain.
“Throughout the first quarter (Jan. 1 through March 31), they had two steaks they were doing a special on and serving them on a sizzling bed of onions, like you might do a fajita,” Reddin said.
The results were positive, she said.
“We were really excited to see onion usage in the stores increased 25% over the same time last year,” she said.
The association had not done many such promotions in the past, but the success with Black Angus likely will prompt more in the near future, Reddin said.
“It’s definitely encouraging and it tells people they should be putting these things on specials,” she said.
Foodservice customers have more focused needs than retail customers have, and anyone dealing with the restaurant sector has to keep that in mind, said Scott Adams, owner of Hatch, N.M.-based Adams Produce Inc., which does “quite a bit” of foodservice business across the U.S.
“Foodservice would probably want a more uniform-type onion and might prefer a jumbo,” he said.
Therein lies the key to success at foodservice, said Brandon Barker, vice president of Barker Produce Inc., Las Cruces, N.M.
The opportunities in foodservice depend on the type of onions available, he said.
It also depends on the customer, said Jeff Brechler, salesman and grower liaison with Edinburg, Texas-based J&D Produce.
“You’ve got Chili’s, Outback and other chains going to the onion blossoms, going for size,” he said.
Flavor matters, too, and so do varieties that are suited to cooking, Brechler said.
“It often depends on the recipe and how strong of an onion flavor you want,” he said.
Onions are an ideal match for international cuisine restaurants, said Sherise Jones, marketing director with the Parma, Idaho-based Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee.
“Onions obviously are a natural for ethnic cuisine, and we are developing new ethnic recipes for the new season to help chefs raise their game — and sales — with ethnic cooking,” Jones said.
Foodservice sales are steady, with no dramatic spikes or dips, said Steve Smith, owner and president of Las Cruces-based National Onion Inc.
“If they create a new dish or menu item, maybe they’ll take a few more, but overall across the country it gets the same amount of use,” he said.
Occasionally a chain may call for an increase in a certain type of onion, Smith said.
“You see little things that will tweak usage once in awhile, like a few years ago, when Subway and Quiznos decided they were going to use more reds,” he said.
That cut into sales of yellow onions, he said.
Hatch, N.M.-based Shiloh Produce Inc. has a longstanding foodservice business, said Stormy Adams, chief executive officer.
“We’ve been doing business with (US Foods) for 15 years now, so we already have a pretty good — and growing — presence in the foodservice industry,” he said.