VIDALIA, Ga. — Mountains of Vidalia onions rising to the ceiling; a handmade sign in the shape of an onion, 4 feet high, with raffia roots; a grill top surrealistically emerging from a giant bulk display — they all characterize the creative ways in which retailers are showcasing the famous sweet onions from south Georgia, officials at the Vidalia Onion Committee told SN.
They were describing entries in a display contest the committee launched in early summer, just as the Vidalia onion season got into full swing.
Last month, the committee chose 10 entries as the best in the nationwide contest, and Wendy Brannen, the committee's executive director, said the group couldn't be more pleased with the participation the contest inspired. “We even got some of the big chains entering. Everybody's entry showed such creativity. Very impressive,” she said.
She explained that the contest, unlike some competitions that award a big prize to the produce director or manager, was purposefully designed to include all produce department associates, from the ground up.
“It is so important to have the ground-level employees engaged and helping.”
Brannen said the committee was acutely aware that it's the front-line associates who sell the product — that they're the ones who maintain the display.
For that reason, everyone involved with the winning displays received American Express gift cards to spend however they pleased.
One winner, Dee Mabry, produce manager at a Shreveport, La., unit of Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas, told SN that participating in the contest was a lot of fun for him and his associates.
Mabry said his floral manager, Dale Toney, drew and colored a huge onion, at least four feet tall, and added raffia for roots, and Mabry set that at the top of a huge display that incorporated both bulk and bagged Vidalia onions. A charcoal grill was also an integral part of the display. The theme of the national contest was “Thrill Your Grill.”
The effort definitely attracted customers to the produce department, Mabry said, and he estimated he sold twice as many Vidalias as he would have without such an eye-catching display. But what he and his staff enjoyed the most, he said, was the interaction with customers.
“I do a lot of grilling myself, so it was easy for me to tell customers how to grill onions. A lot of them had never tried it, so it was a good opportunity for educating them,” Mabry said.
“I told them I just slice the onions, brush a little olive oil on the slices and add any seasonings I have around. They didn't know it was so easy.”
Mabry took the opportunity to cross-merchandise red potatoes and corn, piling them with some onions on top of the grill.
Brannen at the Vidalia Onion Committee told SN the theme gave retailers a chance to bring a lot of other products into the display — even charcoal briquettes and grilling utensils.
Another retailer winner, Timothy Hassler, one of the owners of Ferguson & Hassler, Quarryville, Pa., also told SN his winning display probably doubled sales of Vidalia onions.
His display, too, was huge. Overhead was a 4-by-6-foot stylized banner showing an onion on a black background. It had the look of an art exhibit poster. A big white onion with green shoots coming out of it dominated the center of the banner, which the retailer had made just for the occasion.
“It got people over here, but you know, our customers look forward to Vidalia onion season every year,” Hassler said.
Hassler himself, a co-owner of the family-owned, single-store supermarket, helped his produce merchandising manager, Robert McMullen, build the big display, which incorporated two gas grills.
In addition to Mabry and Hassler, the Vidalia Onion Committee chose eight other winners. They are Eric Dodge, Hy-Vee; Aaron Fleming, Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co.; Tony Gilliam, Food City; Angela Hopson, Food City; Lannie Kiser, Brookshire Grocery Co.; Lequitte Perry, Food City; Doyle Robinson, Food City; and Lee Rose, Food City.
“It was a nice way to begin and end the Vidalia season,” said Brannen at the Vidalia Onion Committee.