The Walla Walla sweet onion is a strong retail item, particularly in chains along the West Coast, according to growers, shippers and marketing agents.
The product serves a variety of roles, from premium niche item to a bridge between other varieties, they said.
“They promote them rather aggressively,” said Stefan Matheny, product development and research manager with River Point Farms in Hermiston, Ore.
The brevity of the product’s season — roughly mid-June to early September — enhances its value, Matheny said.
“They understand it’s a premium onion and it’s a rather short window they have to promote, but it also has a following,” he said.
Dominant chains in the region, including Albertson’s and Safeway, offer recipe and usage ideas, as well as promotional information about Walla Walla onions, on their websites.
Sweet onions in general drive retail onion sales, and Walla Wallas play a key role in keeping that momentum going, said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Walla Walla, Wash.
“They have displays, newspaper advertising, they feature sweet onions on a regular basis pretty much on a 12-month basis, and whatever crop is in, that’s the crop they feature,” Borer said.
Getting acceptable returns on the product sometimes is problematic, though, when prices on onions outside the sweet category sometimes pull down the price of the Walla Walla sweets, said Ben Cavalli, owner of Walla Walla-based Cavalli’s Onion Acres.
Profits can be had because the item fills a relatively short window and customers recognize that, said Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association, Walla Walla.
“We have a little market window, although we still promote them as the best onion out there,” he said.
Keystone tries to differentiate the Walla Walla from other onions, including other sweet varieties, Borer said.
“In the end, that’s the brand equity you’re talking about,” he said.
Many customers appreciate that equity, said Mike Locati, a Walla Walla-based grower and chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
“We have customers we cater to that promote our name, because it’s something to bring customers into the store,” he said.
There’s not a lot of time in which to do that, he said, because the deal generally lasts only two to three months.
“You diversify the location of our farms so not everything is ready at once,” he said.
The weight of the Walla Walla name is perhaps the most effective marketing tool growers and shippers have available in the retail business, said Matt Curry, president of Brooks, Ore.-based Curry & Co.
“The consumer has so many choices in the produce department, if you don’t have some way of attracting their attention they may bypass the sweet onions and grab a storage onion,” he said.
Retailers can play a key role in building sales by helping Walla Walla sweet onions stand out in their produce departments, Curry said.
“In your displays, set your sweet onion section apart from storage onions, provide the basics such as usage suggestions and recipes — anything you can do to help catch the consumer’s eye,” he said.