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U.S. onion eaters see red

Remembering that the eyes must be pleased before the stomach is, restaurants are experimenting with red onions.

Published September 21, 2005

HERMISTON, Ore. - 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. He was promptly ignored by the other farmers here at the heart of the nation's onion belt.

But Hale was proved right in 1997, when Pizza Hut took the plunge and switched from yellow onions to red onions on all its pizzas. Two years ago, Subway, the nation's top-selling sandwich chain, embraced red, saying they add 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.

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," Mehta said.

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 reds in 2003. In spite of the higher price tag, the switch was a "no brainer," said Nick Hauptfeld, Subway's manager of new product development.

After doing tests in selected sandwich stores, Subway researchers concluded that their customers chose red onions to yellow 3-1, 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, where the two were tested side by side.

Last year, Burger King began using red onions in its salads, though it is staying with yellow on its Whoppers.

Not all major chains have jumped on the red bandwagon. Domino's Pizza is sticking with yellow after testing red onions and finding their quality and consistency were harder to assure.

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 past two years, he has doubled his area of reds to around 60 acres, hoping to meet demand from grocery chains.

When he's not out harvesting or caring for his fields, he's 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 there. Producing a good variety takes about 10 years, said Ton van der Velden, U.S. sales manager for Nunhems Inc., the largest onion seed supplier in America.

"You can put a red in the ground," warned Hale, whose red onions are sold in Subway's 20,000 North American franchises. "But you may not harvest it."

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 10:37:05]

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