Growers and shippers of Walla Walla sweet onions say their product is primarily a retail item, but there are exceptions.
One, for instance, is Brian Scheehser, a chef who says he will bring in a full supply of Walla Walla sweets for his restaurant as soon as they’re available.
Scheehser, executive chef of Trellis Restaurant in downtown Kirkland, Wash., said Walla Walla sweets are ideal ingredients for many dishes he prepares.
“When they’re really young, tender and small, they’re great as a salad onion and they’re great to pickle,” he said.
Trellis slices and grills Walla Walla sweets and also uses them in soups and salads, Scheehser said.
“We go through quite a bit until other onions start to come in,” he said.
Walla Walla sweets generally are the first premium sweet onion of the season, and Trellis values them as such, Scheehser said.
“We often get them before they’re even as big as a golf ball,” he said.
As the season progresses and the restaurant brings in larger sizes, applications for them multiply, Scheehser said.
“They’re great on sandwiches, and we also make a sweet onion marmalade with them,” he said.
Other restaurants ask for Walla Walla sweets, too, growers said.
“We have some restaurants in Portland that push the Walla Walla sweets when they’re in season,” said Ben Cavalli, owner of Cavalli’s Onion Acres in Walla Walla, Wash.
On the whole, though, the limits of the 10-week season cut into Walla Walla sweets’ ability to make large foodservice inroads, said Bill Dean, grower with River Point Farms, Hermiston, Ore.
“When you talk foodservice, you’re talking chain business,” he said.
Most growers and shippers point to Vancouver, Wash.-based Burgerville, a regional fast-food chain, as the primary foodservice customer for Walla Walla sweets.
“They use them for their onion ring program, and it has been a good program,” Dean said.
Even that has its limits, though, said Stefan Matheny, product development and research manager with River Point Farms.
“It’s a small portion (of the crop),” he said.
There is hope that foodservice business will pick up, said Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association in Walla Walla.
“I think foodservice is getting more in tune with sweet onions than they used to be,” he said.
Local or regional restaurants, in particular, are perhaps more in tune than any other foodservice clients, said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, Pa.
“It absolutely sells really well in local markets, restaurant-wise, in the Northwest, and it’s promoted very heavily. But outside the area, because of the short window and volume that comes in, it’s very difficult to get a national foothold,” he said.
Scheehser said his customers love the product.
“They’re very well received because it’s something that always starts early here, and our diners are looking for something that’s local,” he said.
Diners also say Walla Walla sweets compare favorably against other sweet onions, Scheehser said.
“When they’re nice and sweet, you can eat them just like an apple,” he said.