Any Way You Slice It

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Any Way You Slice It

By Jennifer Strailey - 06/07/2015

Among the world’s most versatile vegtables, onions are used to season dishes around the globe. But it’s more than culinary tradition that keeps consumers slicing and dicing; onions add flavor and nutrition to a host of dishes, without fat, sodium or significant calories.

In the United States, onion consumption has increased more than 70 percent over the past two decades, from 12.2 pounds per person in 1982 to 20 pounds per person today, according to the National Onion Association.

“Onions are certainly important in our diet,” affirms Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations for the Greeley, Colo.-based association. “They are one of the most widely traded vegetables in the world.

“In the U.S., we’ve got such a melting pot of cultures,” she continues. “There’s not a cuisine in the world that doesn’t use onions in some fashion, which is part of what makes usage here so strong. Think of pickled onions, caramelized, raw, slow-roasted, soft and savory onions — there are so many different flavors and textures, depending on how you use this extremely versatile vegetable.”

Some of today’s hottest food trends are further driving onion sales. Reddin sees pickled onions dressing up everything from street tacos to Asian-inspired banh mi sandwiches to fine dining. “Pickled onion is definitely trending. It adds a splash of color and flavor,” she notes.

In her work with registered dietitians in supermarkets around the country, Reddin emphasizes not only the myriad uses of onions, but their health benefits as well. Onions are high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber, as well as providing a nutritional boost, all at just 45 calories per serving.

To promote the nutritional and culinary benefits of onions to a national audience, the organization is sponsoring a new PBS television cooking show featuring Robin Shea that’s devoted to the concept of 80/20 — 80 percent healthy and 20 percent indulgent. The program is slated to begin taping this month. Shea will also appear in cooking videos to be featured on the National Onion Association’s website.

Sweet Success

“Growing steadily over the last decade, sweet onion sales have either been tied with or have overtaken yellow cooking-onion sales during the last three years,” says John Shuman, president and director of sales for Shuman Produce, who adds that sweet onions account for nearly a third of total onion category sales.

As summer barbecue season heats up, grocers have the opportunity to further leverage sales of this increasingly popular onion variety. Cross-merchandising them with other grill-friendly foods can spur sales in numerous categories.

With this strategy in mind, Reidsville, Ga.-based Shuman Produce has designed a display unit for cross-merchandising its RealSweet Vidalia Onions in multiple locations, both in and out of the produce department.

“Research we’ve conducted with Nielsen Perishables Group indicates that sweet onions drive sales of a variety of items,” notes Shuman. “Consumers with sweet onions in their carts are more likely to purchase produce such as peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and bagged salad, as well as fresh meats such as beef and chicken.

“Tie-ins with popular cookout items, such as peppers, tomatoes, burgers, sausage and even center store items such as mustard, work well to build a meal solution consumers can easily utilize and purchase as a complete package,” he adds.

Along with the ability to be used as secondary displays, Shuman’s new smaller display units offer a colorful merchandising tool for smaller-format stores lacking the floor space for a full-sized bin.

This Vidalia season, Shuman Produce is teaching consumers “How to Speak Southern” with a new promotion designed to share the story behind the onions and the families who grow and ship RealSweet Vidalias. As part of the promotion, the company has launched a tie-in website; additional promotional efforts include social media, video content, an interactive contest and information on the history of Shuman Produce.

More sweet-onion season cross-promotional opportunities abound, thanks to Bland Farms, which recently launched a cross-merchandising campaign featuring its Vidalia Sweet Onions and chips.

The Glenville, Ga.-based company has expanded its Vidalia Brands products with a Zesty Ranch version of its Sweet Onion Petals chips. “It has a bit of sriracha flavoring and kick to it,” says Greg Smith, marketing communications manager.

To promote sales of both the chips and onions, Bland Farms is placing a coupon tearpad on all of its Vidalia Brands display shippers to offer shoppers $1 of a bag of Bland Farms Vidalia Sweet Onions with the purchase of a bag of Vidalia Brands chips. “We believe this is another great produce-specific cross-promotional opportunity for our customers,” asserts Smith.

Sweet Signage

When it comes to merchandising onions, clear signage indicating the type of onion and its origin is critical.

“Drawing attention to the fact that certain onions are sweet onions and not conventional storage onions is important, because they can appear very similar to consumers,” explains Smith. “Sweet onions command a premium price compared to conventional onions, due to their versatility, superior flavor profile and overall quality. As such, we need to make sure consumers are being informed of those favorable characteristics.”

Educating consumers about the different uses of sweet versus storage onions through signage or in-store cooking demos can also be a valuable tool to spark sales.

“The milder and sweet onion varieties lend themselves to the lighter cooking preparations this time of year — salads and grilling. This cooking works really well with sweet onions, which are higher in water content,” notes Reddin, of the National Onion Association. Meanwhile, storage onions, which have a lower water content and more concentrated flavor, are ideal for the soups and stews of fall and winter.

Due to the higher water content in sweet onions, Smith recommends rotating them frequently, as they are more prone to bruising than storage onions. “To keep sweet onions unblemished and in the best shape possible, they should be rotated frequently, handled with care and never stacked too high,” he advises.

Growth in Organics

According to a new report released by the Organic Trade Association, in Washington, D.C., exports of U.S. organic foods, as well as imports of organics in the United States, have risen significantly in the past few years. A notable 27 percent of U.S. onion exports are now organic.

“The onion category itself continues to be one of the top-10 volume items in the produce department,” notes Tony Campise, of Utah Onion Inc., in Syracuse, Utah. “Organic and sweet onions continue to be the items that are the most increased.”

A grower-shipper of yellow, red, white, sweet and organic onions, Utah Onion has growing locations in Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state.

“At Utah Onion — Hartley’s Best, we continue to evolve as a company,” says Campise, who reveals that a new marketing campaign is in development and scheduled to debut soon.

“We are working towards bringing our multiple growing regions under one strategic plan, while consolidating our sales efforts,” he explains. “We are also looking at cross-promotions with our retailers to help drive volume for the onion category, as well as avocados, tomatoes and potentially mushrooms.”

Utah Onion’s organic line will be part of the campaign. “I see organics as a growing portion of the business,” says Campise. “The consumer push for more and more organics will only continue to increase.”

“There’s not a cuisine in the world that doesn’t use onions in some fashion, which is part of what makes usage here so strong.”
—Kim Reddin, National Onion Association

“Growing steadily over the last decade, sweet onion sales have either been tied with or have overtaken yellow cooking-onion sales during the last three years.”
—John Shuman, Shuman Produce