The increasing popularity of Vidalia sweet onions has been a boon not only to that production region but to the overall sweet onion category, including Peruvian sweets, say growers, packers and importers.
“Vidalia basically built up commercial sweet onions, and everybody from any other source has benefited from that,” said Barry Rogers, president of the Melbourne, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Co. “The buyers ride on the (Vidalia) shirttails more than the consumers.”
Ralph Diaz, export and sales manager for Karpinski Trucking & Produce, Sunbury, Pa., agreed.
“I think the Vidalia onion helps us because if (shoppers) can’t get Vidalias, there are off-shore onions,” he said. “I think consumers are getting more educated about sweet onions.”
The flatter shape and bright yellow skin similar to that of a Vidalia also helps consumers recognize it as a Peruvian sweet, Andy Brady, marketing coordinator for Reidsville, Ga.-based Shuman Produce Inc., said in an e-mail.
Nevertheless, he encourages retailers to use signage in produce departments to call attention to the mild, sweet flavor and cooking versatility of Peruvian sweets.
Diaz also credits the Food Network and other cooking shows for elevating sweet onions’ prominence.
“The food shows have helped the industry,” he said. “People now actually go out looking for sweet onions.”
Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Metter, Ga.-based Hendrix Produce Inc. and chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said his group’s educational efforts appear to be working with consumers.
“I think that they have learned that the Vidalia is a sweet onion that you can not only cook with but that you can eat raw, and I think consumers like that,” he said.
When the Vidalia season has ended, he said Peru provides a good replacement.
“Our customers want year-round, consistent supplies, and the Peruvian onion is a good complementary onion that falls in right behind the Vidalia.”
Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., also rides the momentum created by Vidalia into the Peruvian sweet season in late summer.
“We’ve bolstered our customers’ familiarity by transitioning them directly to a premium flat Peru sweet onion following Vidalia onion season,” sales manager R. Landis Bland said. “The Peru sweet is the closest thing to a Vidalia that a sweet onion lover can expect to purchase until the next Vidalia crop.”
True sweet onions are short-day varieties that are harvested only in the spring.
Peru and Chile work well at providing year-round sweet onion supplies because of opposite seasons, said Brian Kastick, president of Saven Corp., Savannah, Ga., which markets the Oso Sweet brand.
“So the reason we go to Peru, and it’s not for the frequent flier miles, is because the onions themselves only harvest in the spring. Vidalias are harvested in April and May and put in cold storage.
“But when it’s springtime in Peru — because it’s close to the equator — their spring can drag on for six months.”
Kastick said he also thinks changing demographics have helped bolster demand.
As baby boomers grow older, traditional yellow cooking onions may be too strong for their taste buds, so they seek out the milder sweets.
In addition, the economic slump from which the nation is recovering prompted more people to stay home and prepare meals.
“I think there’s renewed interest in cooking at home,” he said.
And many consumers view sweet onions as an affordable luxury that also adds flavor, Kastick said.
“Sweet onions have a lot more water in them,” he said. “That flavor, and the extra water, sort of infuses into the recipe. It’s the water content, higher sugars and lower pyruvic (acid) that make them better for cooking and better for fresh applications.
“Sweet onions are really becoming the onion for people who want to jazz up a very easy recipe.”