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Bewitching Bulbs


Americans tune in to watch them sliced, diced sautéed and braised on scores of cooking shows. They’re the backbone, tasty topping and spice of countless dishes. Onions and garlic are culinary staples with sky-high sales potential.

The availability of different varieties — each with a unique flavor profile — of onions and garlic is further driving sales in these categories. Whether it’s Vidalia onions, Peruvian sweet onions, black garlic or organic green onions, consumers have an array of flavorful seasonal and year-round options to keep them coming back for more.

At the same time, onions and garlic are healthful flavor enhancers, providing yet another reason that today’s wellness-minded consumers are bewitched by these bulbs.

Vidalia Onion Season

The countdown to Vidalia season has begun, and as retailers ready for the arrival of this category leader, the Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC) is preparing to launch its inspired 2016 campaign.

The Vidalia, Ga.-based VOC has featured the V is for Vidalia marketing campaign for the past two years during the Vidalia season, which runs from the end of April through Labor Day. The campaign promotes the versatility and benefits of Vidalia onions to a younger consumer base through digital and social media activities, as well as outreach to food bloggers.

“For the 2016 season, we’ll continue the V campaign with V*Inspired, to include a more authentic voice focusing on the growers and some new spokespersons,” says VOC Executive Director Susan Waters. “We’ll be featuring the growers and the growing process on our social media sites to educate consumers on where and how Vidalia onions are grown. The growers will also share their passion for growing these premium sweet onions and share what makes them unique.”

As part of the initiative, the VOC’s new spokeswoman is Fox’s first “America’s Masterchef” winner, cookbook author and blogger Whitney Miller. She’ll make guest appearances on the VOC’s social media sites, develop a series of healthy recipes featuring Vidalia onions and highlight Vidalia onions on her blog. Miller will also appear on the committee’s graphic retail bins that feature her recipes on a POS tear-off pad.

“According to research conducted by Nielsen, sweet onions are the onion category leader, representing the largest share of total onion dollar sales (35 percent), followed by yellow onions (33 percent),” Waters notes. “Red onions represent 18 percent of category share.”

What’s more, Vidalia onions account for 62 percent of sweet onion dollar sales and 22 percent of total onion dollar sales.

The versatility of Vidalia onions and consumer interest in experimenting with them are further driving sales. “According to our 2015 consumer research study, consumers use Vidalia onions in salads, stir-fries, soups, on sandwiches and burgers, and chopped or diced in a recipe,” Waters observes. “We’ve also seen an increased usage with Vidalia onions in salad dressings, salsas and dips.”

In addition to providing retailers with an array of POS, merchandising tips available at, recipes and photography, the VOC has developed a supermarket dietitian toolkit this year.

A Sweet Staple

“Sweet onions have become a staple in many consumers’ kitchens,” notes John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce Inc., in Reidsville, Ga. “They’re valued for their mild, sweet flavor and inherent versatility in a variety of dishes.”

And while Vidalia onions are the leader in the sweet onion category, Shuman sees the availability of sweet onions from Peru filling an important gap in supply.

“Production in Peru remains consistent as demand remains steady for a high-quality sweet onion with a similar shape and flavor profile to the Vidalia onion during the fall and winter months,” he notes.

With a climate similar to Georgia’s and sandy soils, Peru has become an ideal location to farm sweet onions during the Vidalia off-season.

Shuman Produce recently completed construction on a new sweet onion packing facility in Peru to promote efficiency in its supply chain throughout the Peruvian sweet onion season, which has just ended. Supplies of Peruvian Real Sweet Onions will resume in August.

“Our new facility allows our program to have a new level of flexibility to provide better service to our retail partners and improve our overall Peruvian sweet onion program,” asserts Shuman.

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

To help retailers capitalize on tangential sales, Shuman Produce recently introduced display units designed for cross-merchandising sweet onions alongside other produce items, meat products and center store items in locations within and outside of the produce department.

These smaller units lend themselves to secondary displays. The units feature two distinct artwork panels: one offers a collection of recipes, while the other depicts freshly harvested sweet onions.

Shuman notes that the company is finalizing the logistics of its annual retail campaign, which will launch next month. “The promotion is not only new to the sweet onion category, but it is also the first of its kind in the produce industry,” he says, adding that details will be revealed soon.

“Within the broader onion category, sweet onion growth continues to outpace the growth of other types of onions,” agrees Greg Smith, marketing communications manager for Bland Farms, in Glenville, Ga. “That demand would suggest that consumers are certainly more aware now than ever of sweet onions, their uses, the subtle differences in variety, etc.”

While Smith affirms that “the Vidalia sweet onion remains king of the category,” Bland Farms is also seeing continued growth from its Peruvian sweet onions.

From Smith’s perch, versatility and fat-free flavor are driving the sweet onion trend. “Sweet onions can be enjoyed raw due to their mild, sweet flavor, which makes them more versatile than their conventional counterpart,” he asserts. “As the trend towards healthier meals in the household continues, we think that the sweet onion stands to certainly benefit from that. It’s a great source of healthy flavor.”

Last year, Bland Farms introduced a combination sweet potato/sweet onion holiday bin, and has announced it will do so again this year. The bin features recipe tear pads and an auto-response text invitation that allows consumers to receive more sweet potato and sweet onion recipes and videos on their mobile devices.

Organic Onions

Ocean Mist Organic, based in Castroville, Calif., has expanded its product line with the addition of green onions and Romaine hearts. The Ocean Mist Organic label now features 18 items.

The green onions, which are available in 48-count iced bunches, were added in response to continued demand for Ocean Mist Organic fresh produce, according to Joe Feldman, VP of sales and marketing at Ocean Mist Farms.

The items are shipping from Ocean Mist Organic’s expanded cooler in Coachella, Calif.

Black and White Garlic

“Garlic is still trending upward, which is amazing, considering it has been trending upward for over 30 years!” exclaims Jim Provost, co-founder of I Love Produce, in West Grove, Pa., which supplies garlic year-round from the United States, Spain, Mexico, China and Argentina. “Information about the health benefits of garlic and the use of garlic as an ingredient in cooking shows and in ethnic cuisines have kept this positive trend going.”

Provost also sees a younger, more diverse U.S. population enjoying and using garlic more than previous generations.

One of the most exciting introductions to the garlic category in recent years is black garlic, he notes. “It is a relatively niche item, but when Dr. Oz came out and said eating it results in younger-looking skin, the market took off,” Provost observes.

Black garlic is made by fermenting fresh whole bulbs of garlic at high temperatures, which results in black cloves. The process creates garlic with a sweetness likened to aged balsamic vinegar.

In January, Bon Appetit magazine covered the black garlic trend, noting that restaurant chefs from coast to coast are featuring it on their menus.

“Another relatively recent trend is the introduction of garlic from Spain into the United States market,” says Provost. “When the Russian market closed to Spain, due to the economic restrictions, and the European market slowed down, Spain looked to the U.S. market.”

I Love Produce is working with Big Garlic of Spain to bring both fresh and peeled Spanish garlic to the United States. “Because there has been a short supply of garlic from California and Argentina, and the fact [that] Spanish garlic is a very high quality, it has been very positively accepted into the marketplace,” he asserts.

As a result of the aforementioned shortages, among other factors, Provost predicts that changes in garlic supply and pricing are imminent. “There are some factors that will lead to extreme pressure on the supply,” he says, pointing to what he calls a “perfect storm” adversely affecting the garlic supply.

California’s 2015 storage crop is coming to an end, and while the industry was counting on Argentina’s new-crop garlic to bridge the gap between that end and the beginning of the garlic season from Mexico in April, Argentina has lost a significant percentage — perhaps as much as 80 percent — of its crop to El Niño rains, he explains.

China, which leads the world in garlic production, had a short crop, starting with its harvest in July 2015, continues Provost, noting, “Now all of their garlic is in cold storage, and due to their short supply and pressure on the supply, prices are rising up like crazy.”

“Sweet onions have become a staple in many consumers’ kitchens.”
—John Shuman, Shuman Produce Inc.

“Within the broader onion category, sweet onion growth continues to outpace the growth of other types of onions.”
—Greg Smith, Bland Farms

“Garlic is still trending upward, which is amazing, considering it has been trending upward for over 30 years!”
—Jim Provost, I Love Produce

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