(May 15, 4:18 p.m.) Onion marketing agents say they appreciate the advantages their product has in the foodservice sector that other produce items may lack.

After all, they say, consumers can gobble up plenty of onion blooms, rings, flowers and other inventions in fast-food eateries, while consuming plenty of fresh product in casual or white-tablecloth establishments.

“I think it’s a rapidly growing category,” said Marty Kamer, sales manager of Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., which numbers Walla Walla sweet onions among the products it markets to restaurants. “It’s a consumer preference for the mild sweet onion that has so many different uses.”

Kamer compared onions to wine.

“People buy onions for distinct flavors, like they buy wine,” he said. “They buy a white for a particular flavor and usage. It’s the same thing. We try to meet that expectation. The white offering is known for its hot spicy flavor that’s great for salsas, or a sweet onion that can be eaten raw.”

Not all onion marketers agree that all onion varieties are equally suited to the foodservice business, however.

“Typically, foodservice is not a big draw on sweet onions,” said Michael Hively, general manager of Glenville, Ga.-based Vidalia onion grower-shipper Bland Farms LLC.

COST

Costs usually enter into the equation at foodservice, Hively said.

“They look for a low price in their onions, and usually we price ourselves out of the foodservice arena,” Hively said.

Or, at least, they have in the past, he said.

“With that said, I think whether they’re restaurants or cooks or even housewives, they’re starting to look at sweet onions to cut with more and more,” Hively said. “There are different uses out there for foodservice, to cook with or for salads. But typically, we don’t do a whole lot of foodservice business.”

Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House LLC, Weslaco, Texas, said foodservice purveyors look at cost first and foremost.

“Foodservice, strangely enough, is one of the last groups to switch off of the old (storage) onions out West,” Holmes said. “They don’t rally care whether the onion is sweet or hot enough to blow the back of your head off. So, they’re buying onions from Washington for $2.”

By late April, Holmes said, he hadn’t received any inquiries from foodservice buyers.

“At some point, supply and demand takes over and these guys show up,” he said

BURGERVILLE

Walla Walla, Wash.-based Locati Farms Inc., which grows and ships Walla Walla sweet onions, works with a regional fast-food chain, Burgerville, in the Pacific Northwest, said Michael Locati, president.

“We have an onion ring promotion we do with them, and it’s a real hit with their customers,” Locati said. “They have been a pretty good customer and a good way for us to expand into the foodservice side.”

That’s about as much as the company can handle, however, Locati said.

“We are a part of it with this local chain, with 35-40 restaurants; that works for us,” he said. “I’m sure we’d like to expand into more, but as far as taking on a big chain like McDonald’s, we don’t have the kind of volume we’d need.”

Chris Eddy, sales manager for the McAllen, Texas-based office of Oviedo, Fla.-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., said red onions continue to be a major foodservice driver.

“I expect that probably more restaurants are using red onions and you’re starting to get more of the restaurants including red onions on their menus — Pizza Hut, Subway and such. I guess it adds color. Exposure to the food channels has helped all onions, but reds, in particular,” he said.

FLAVOR

David Burrell, president of Collins, Ga.-based National Onion Labs Inc., said the foodservice sector is looking for flavorful onions.

“They’re looking more in terms of taste,” he said. “We do a good bit of work supporting institutional food processors. They’re always looking for various flavor specs.”

There are some who look at other factors, as well, Burrell said.

“Others like to have lots of solids but not in the form of sugars,” he said. “They don’t want it to caramelize or turn brown. Some other flavor aspects, sometimes onions can develop metallic or bitter flavors. Some problem is variety-based.”

Size also is a factor, said Chris Franzoy, owner of Young Guns Inc., Hatch, N.M.

“They’re looking for an onion that has uniformity as far as shape,” he said. “They’re looking for an onion that has a shelf life. The most commonly sold item is the jumbo yellow onion. Not necessarily a sweet but your typical spanish. Generally, it has good size and has a longer shelf life.”

Whatever the sector seeks, foodservice is a priority with the Parma, Idaho-based Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, said Sherise Jones, the committee’s marketing director.

“I think we’ve really put a big push on this and last year to try to develop new recipe ideas, trying to keep those onions easy to work with,” she said. “With the right menu item they have a good profitability so we were trying to go back to the drawing board to keep that onion consumption going and have them incorporate it into their menus.”