VIDALIA, GA — Two and a half decades ago, Vidalia onion growers banded together with a plan to save their crop and its deserved reputation as the world’s best onion from encroachment.
The Vidalia industry started in the 1930s with a happy accident. After weather wiped out farmers’ regular onion crop, a train carload of seedlings was shipped from Texas just in time to help save the season.
But there was a catch – that crop of onions came up sweet, not fiery. Farmers were perplexed. Customers at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store were delighted though, and an industry was born.
In those Internet-free and social media-less times, word about the sweet onion did not spread quickly. They remained a local favorite in the region – only 13 counties and parts of seven others in Southeast Georgia can grow Vidalias.
As more and more people heard about “that sweet onion from Vidalia” the name of the town at the center of the growing region became attached to the onion itself.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that marketing efforts moved Vidalias out of the region and onto America’s plates. The onion quickly became a culinary darling. As a result, everybody wanted to jump on the bandwagon and slap Vidalia labels on anything that had onion in it.
Vidalia growers knew they needed protection – and that a Federal Marketing Order and trademark was the only way to get that protection. Congress recognized the Vidalia onion as a unique product that warranted trademark protection and in 1992, the PLU 4159 was assigned to Vidalia onions. That provides guaranteed protection for the crop. To make sure the legislation is more than just a paper threat, the state of Georgia owns and protects the trademark.
But diligence is still required daily. Vidalia Onion Business Council Director Bob Stafford spends much of his time tracking down reports of phony Vidalia promotion, from roadside stands offering fresh Vidalias at impossible times of the year to restaurants mislabeling menu offerings as Vidalia-based.
Nobody’s going to jail for trying to pass off other onions as Vidalias. Though there can be substantial financial penalties involved, “you don’t jump and jerk and try to shut somebody down, you work with them,” Stafford says. “A lot of the problems we have are human error, mislabeling in a store, and for the most part people stop what they’re doing when we call it out. We want the trademark protected but we don’t want the customers aggravated and we want them to advertise them as Vidalia onions. So we work with people and they work with us. So they’re happy and we’re happy. But we are serious.
“We watch this trademark very strongly, I spend a lot of time policing it and chasing violations. We just don’t play with it, we don’t let anybody mess with this trademark. We’ve got players in this industry who put their life up against that reputation and practice what they preach. We protect the trademark because we’re often imitated but never duplicated. So we nip it in the bud.”
As much as monitoring protects the Vidalia’s reputation, marketing has helped make it. Sure it helps to start with a great product, but three decades of savvy marketing have made Vidalia onions one of the few crops with a household name.
The Vidalia Onion Committee’s annual promotional campaign has helped spread the word for years, peaking in 2010 with a tie-in with Dreamworks Studios’ mammoth hit movie “Shrek IV” which paired the onion-eating animated ogre with sweet Vidalias.
This year’s campaign theme is “Only Vidalia” – a self-explanatory marketing angle that focuses attention on the artisanal aspects of the crop, which is still planted and harvested by hand. That kind of care has created legions of loyal fans, many of whom make the pilgrimage from around the world to see where their favorite onions come from. They also visit the small but fascinating Vidalia Onion Museum in a steady stream; that facility’s guestbook shows visitors from virtually every U.S. state, as well as Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Korea, Libya, Spain and Zimbabwe.
“You’d be surprised at how busy this little museum is,” Waters said. “Who would have ever thought that people would come off the beaten path just to come here? When people come to Vidalia they think they’re going to find Vidalias just planted along the streets. That’s why we have Vidalias planted in front of the building, but we have to have signs asking people not to pick those.”
And later this month the annual Vidalia Onion Festival will draw as many as 30,000 people to town for a weekend long party featuring an air show, skydiving, carnivals, name-brand entertainment (this year’s headliner is Southern rock favorites Blackberry Smoke) and of course tons and tons of Vidalia-centered culinary delights and cook-offs.