In an increasingly crowded sweet onion market, the Walla Walla name brings some marketing heft, growers and shippers of the area’s sweet onions say.
“The Walla Walla has been around probably the longest, and sweet onions are kind of the customer’s preference, and we feel we have a sweeter onion than most people,” said Harry Hamada, manager of Walla Walla, Wash.-based Walla Walla River Packing & Storage LLC.
He said the brevity of the Walla Walla sweet onion season — roughly between mid- to late June through early September — and the limited production area in southeastern Washington’s and northeastern Oregon’s Walla Walla Valley enhance the product’s value.
“There are other sweet onions around here that aren’t Walla Walla sweets,” Hamada said.
It’s a brand with plenty of equity, said Ben Cavalli, owner of Cavalli’s Onion Acres in Walla Walla.
“The Walla Walla sweet has a federal marketing order and on the bag themselves they have a sweet onion logo, and that has to be on the bag,” he said.
Helping consumers understand the difference between Walla Walla sweets and other sweet onions is crucial to success in the deal, said Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association, Walla Walla.
That’s where the brand’s tradition comes in handy, he said.
“Walla Wallas have been around for a long time, and I think it means not only a good mild onion but consistency,” he said.
Matt Curry, president of Brooks, Ore.-based Curry & Co., says the Walla Walla name is as weighty as Vidalia, and Walla Walla has an extra edge.
“The long history of Walla Walla onions is one of the biggest advantages we have,” he said.
The industry should be careful, though, not to rely too much on the past to build its future, said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, Pa.
“The proof is in the end result of the quality the customer receives in that particular label,” Borer said, adding that his company’s Walla Walla River brand represents up to 70% of Walla Walla sweet onion production.
The product’s tradition has built a loyal following, but there’s always more work to do, said Mike Locati, a Walla Walla-based grower and chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
“We do all we can to market — through the Internet, Facebook and any advertising we can,” he said.
Consumers are effective marketing agents, he said.
“They like them and ask their retailers when they’re coming in again,” he said.