Thursday, September 15, 2005

Proxy by onion.

What's in color? Restaurant chains switch from yellow to red onions

Associated Press Writer
1,177 words
12 September 2005
Associated Press Newswires
(c) 2005. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

HERMISTON, Ore. (AP) - Bob Hale took a risk a decade ago, pulling up his yellow onions and planting red ones instead.

"Color is the new thing," he predicted -- and was promptly ignored by the farmers here, at the heart of the nation's onion belt.

He was proved right in 1997, when Pizza Hut took the plunge and switched from yellow to red onions on all its pizzas. Two years ago, Subway, the nation's largest selling sandwich chain, embraced red, saying they added a splash of color to subs.

Now, large and small chains are experimenting with the brightly pigmented onion, a highly temperamental plant that takes far more skill to grow than its yellow cousin.

Few farmers were prepared to accommodate the booming demand for reds. Which is why, if you ask for onions on your next 6-inch sub, chances are they came from American Onion, the farm Hale and his partner run here.

According to Food Beat Inc., which tracks the top 200 restaurant chains, the number of mentions of red onions on menus nationwide has grown 88 percent since 1999 -- from 229 that year to 430 in 2004.

Of the overall onion market nationwide in 2004, 88 percent were yellow onions, 7 percent were reds, up from 5 percent five years before, and 5 percent were white, according to the National Onion Association.

Fast-food chains are discovering what gourmet chefs have long known -- a dish's visual presentation is almost as important as its taste.

"Consumers, first of all, eat with their eyes," said Shirish Mehta, chief food innovations and technology officer for Dallas-based Pizza Hut Inc.

In the company's pizza lab, researchers were bothered by the fact that the yellow onion blended with the cheese. "Cheese is light in color and so a white or yellow onion doesn't show up," said Mehta.

So they did a test, putting two pizzas in front of customers -- identical but for the fact that one was topped with reds, the other with yellows. Overwhelmingly, their subjects chose the more colorful one, even though the two onions also differ in taste, with reds generally thought to be milder.

The decision to switch was a "significant investment" for the chain because red onions are pricier than their yellow relatives, he said.

The same held for Subway, which changed to red in 2003. In spite of the higher price tag, the switch was a "no brainer," said Subway's Nick Hauptfeld, manager of new product development at the company's headquarters in Milford, Conn.

After doing tests in selected sandwich stores, Subway researchers concluded that their customers chose red onion toppings to yellow 3-to-1, he said.

"Red was outpacing yellow to the point where there was no point in having the yellow anymore," said Steve Sager, who owns a franchise in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where the two were tested side-by-side.

Last year, Burger King began using red onions in their salads. But forget finding anything other than a traditional onion on their whoppers, the chain's all-American offering since 1957.

Smaller chains, too, are giving their menus a red tint.

Shari's, a 27-year-old chain based in Portland, did away with yellow onions in its burgers, salads and sandwiches in 2002. Brueggers, a national soup and sandwich chain with more than 240 locations nationwide, uses red onions in seven of its 12 sandwich offerings.

They continue to use yellow onions in their soups; chains that have continued to use the yellow variety are mostly ones that use it inside a dish, where appearance is not a factor, such as in a bowl of Wendy's chili or inside a Taco Bell taco.

And some major chains have decided to stick with yellow.

"Appearance is certainly a key thing, but great taste is also a priority. And we found that a yellow onion makes for a better pizza," said Trish Drueke, Domino Pizza's vice president of brand marketing.

Executives at Domino's Pizza Inc., the nation's No. 2 pizza chain headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., said they tested red onions and found their quality and consistency were harder to assure. That may be a result of the fact that 80 percent of the nation's onion fields are still planted with yellow and the red is harder to find in bulk.

The chain has chosen to infuse its pizzas with color in other ways, such as adding bright green parsley to its recently launched Steak Fanatic Pizza, Drueke said.

The red onion's sudden popularity caught the farming industry off guard, with many farmers forced to scrounge for seeds.

Dan Miyasako, 44, inherited his father's farm in Homedale, Idaho, where the elder Miyasako had been growing yellows since the 1940s. In the last two years, he has doubled his area of reds from 30 acres to around 60 acres, hoping to meet the recent demand from grocery chains.

When he's not out harvesting or caring for his fields, he's now on the phone looking for a good pail of red seed.

"There's a real shortage of it. It's hard to get your hands on it. You can get the ugly, the not-so-pretty reds. But the real pretty -- the red wing, salsa, red bull seeds -- those are hard to find," he said.

Because the yellow onion has been by far the most popular variety for decades, seed breeders have focused most of their attention on yellow. And producing a good variety takes on average around 10 years, said Ton Van Der Velden, U.S. sales manager for Nunhems Inc., the largest onion seed supplier in America. Today, 20 percent of the company's research dollars are focused on red onions, up from 5 percent a decade ago, he said.

"You can put a red in the ground," said Bob Hale back in Hermiston, whose red onions are the only ones sold in Subway's 20,000 North American franchises for 33 weeks out of 52. "But you may not harvest it."

Back when other farmers in this town were planting the same yellow onions their fathers and grandfathers had once harvested, he and his partners at American Onion were experimenting with the fickle vegetable, trying different seeds and improving the way the red is stored.

First Pizza Hut came knocking in the late 1990s, confirming his hunch. They barreled ahead -- increasing their acreage of reds, while maintaining their fields of yellow, an onion which continues to be a staple of grocery stores and dinner plates in spite of the red's newfound fame.

When Subway was looking to fill its supply, they were ready.

"Money is made on the fringes," he said. "We had some people tell us it was crazy."


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