Zappala Family Builds on Growing Taste for Mild, Sweet Onions

When the Zappalas entered the onion business in 1927, history was on their side. Onions, after all, have been a key part of good eating, worldwide, for more than 5,000 years.

Zappala Farms evolved to become the largest onion producer in New York state, in part by realizing an onion is not just an onion. During the 1980s, Jim Zappala, seeing demand growing for sweeter, milder onions, worked with researchers and seed companies to develop a unique variety that ripened in the fall.

That onion, called Empire Sweet, propelled Zappala Farms to even greater prominence.

In 2003, in another giant step forward, brothers Sam and Jim Zappala started Empire Fresh-Cuts and ventured into the world of cold-chain management and marketing to new customers, “who wanted to take the onion category out of their kitchens,” as Sam put it. They now sell sliced, diced and whole peeled onions, both sweet and pungent, to customers who need them.

Their Empire Sweet products fit anywhere a mild onion is needed, one that won’t bite back when eaten fresh. They fit into salads, on top of burgers, on pizza and in or on Mexican foods like salsa, tacos and fajitas.

The Zappala family began producing onions 79 years ago in Oswego County, New York, on muck soils along Lake Ontario. Today, Zappala Farms is the largest yellow storage onion producer east of the Mississippi. It grows about 850 acres of onions each year on muck and mineral soils. It grows cooking and sweet onions. It buys, packs and sells onions from other growers. Annually, it sells about 750,000 50-pound bags of onions.

Sam credits his brother, Jim, with having the vision and persistence to believe they could find and grow a sweet onion that matured in New York in the fall. That would put them in the market after other sweet onions – Vidalias, Walla Walla Sweets, Texas Supersweets – were past their season.

The trademarked Empire Sweet debuted in 1996, after the Zappalas introduced it at the New York State Fair. Consumers quickly were hooked. Now, Empire Sweets can be found all across eastern North America and in export markets as well. Like Vidalias, Empire Sweets test about 2.5 to 3.5 on the mildness scale, using the standard test for pyruvic acid levels.

In 1978, the Zappala family created another business, separate from Zappala Farms, called Oswego Growers and Shippers. That entity packs and markets Zappala Farms onions of all kinds, and it does all the marketing for Empire Fresh-Cuts as well.

The Final Category

“In 2003, we decided to fill the one onion category that was still left to us,” Sam said of their decision to enter the fresh-cut onion business.

Until then, their onions were sold as fresh, whole bulbs either loose or in consumer bags. But they saw a “changing social climate,” as Sam called it, in which more onion users in the food-service industry wanted ready-to-use onions with no waste ¬– and no more teary-eyed employees cleaning and peeling onions at the kitchen sink.

Empire Fresh-Cuts now produces and markets a full line of sweet and pungent onion products using state-of-the-art production equipment from Europe ¬– machines that require minimal hand labor.

The Zappalas got lots of help getting into business. The 27,000-square-foot plant and equipment cost $2.9 million and was backed by financial assistance from a consortium of lenders, including the Small Business Administration and the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency. The prospect of 30 new industrial jobs was an inducement for the county.

Still, lenders needed to be assured the business would fly, and that meant Empire Fresh-Cuts needed access to markets.

“Most large food companies require processors to have a HACCP plan in place before they will order products,” said Olga Padilla-Zakour, director of Cornell University’s NYS Food Venture Center.

Working with food safety consultants available through the NY Ag Innovation Center (NYAIC), the Zappalas completed the vigorous process of developing a HACCP plan. This was like a “license to deal” with food-service contractors that provide products to schools, corporate cafeterias, restaurants, the military and other food buyers.

Sam, who manages the plant, said: “Two of the biggest benefits of having this plan are attracting new buyers and being able to provide them with a comfort level that passes on to consumers. Ultimately, the consumers rely on our procedures to maintain a safe food supply chain.”

To build Empire Fresh-Cuts’ HACCP plan, consultants from NYAIC visited the plant several times, developed the plan and the forms and evaluated the working processes from receiving, topping, tailing and trimming through slicing, sealing, bagging and palletizing.

HACCP plans are re-evaluated as processing conditions change and validated annually. The Empire Fresh-Cuts HACCP team includes plant owner and manager Sam Zappala, line supervisor Abiu Velasquez, maintenance/sanitation supervisor Dale Chillson, quality control/sanitation manager Robin Maurillo and NYAIC consultants Olga Padilla-Zakour and Randy Worobo from Cornell University.

In addition to Empire Fresh Cuts’ HACCP Plan and Food Security Program, a third-party audit is performed annually to assure Food Safety, Quality and Security Criteria for Food Processing Facilities is in full compliance. In February 2006, Empire Fresh-Cuts underwent an NSF-Cook & Thurber audit and passed with a score of 90.73 percent, placing the company in the best practices category.

Meeting these criteria help enable Empire Fresh-Cuts to further expand its customer confidence in purchasing a safe, secure, quality fresh-cut onion product, Sam said.

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, another layer of security has been needed, he said. All employees at the Empire Fresh-Cuts processing facility wear identification badges and pass through entrances where their identities are verified.

The other level of security is related to food quality and safety. Employees are “suited up” and work in deep refrigeration conditions of 34˚ F.

Onions are stored in cold or CA storage within 70,000 square feet of Oswego Growers and Shippers space. About 16,000 of the 27,000 square feet devoted to Empire Fresh-Cuts is refrigerated space.

To establish and maintain the cold chain that retards microbial growth, the onions are lowered to 34˚ F over two to three days in refrigerated storage. Much of the work of topping and tailing is done by machines, but because onions have a top and a bottom, they must be oriented by hand, Sam said.

The Zappalas use two onion-peeling machines they purchased from Finis, a food processing equipment designer and manufacturer in Ulft, Holland.

The onions are sanitized by immersion in chlorinated water and move in a continuous line that results in about 8,000 pounds of final product every hour. The final products go into containers that include tray packs for onion rings, bags and 1,600-pound bulk bins. After cutting, the onions are dried enough to remove loose moisture.

At the end of the line, cases are sealed and palletized for the shipping room. Oswego Growers and Shippers owns a fleet of trucks, a company called ZTX, but relies mostly on outside carriers to move products to markets from Canada to Texas.

Plans for the Future

Jim Zappala, who runs the farm operation, was excited about the new venture when it began.

“Because we will have technology that will allow us to process a wide variety of onion sizes, we will be able to draw a significant portion of our supply from local growers who often produce slightly smaller onions than onions produced in competing areas in the country, therefore supporting our local economy,” he said in an interview at the time the new company was formed.

“Having our own supplies puts us in a strong competitive position compared to other processors.

“Processing is the final link in the cycle of onion production in Oswego County. We will be able to supply our customers with fresh processed onion products on virtually a year-round basis without having to draw raw product from other areas.”

The company plans to “stay focused on onions,” Sam said. “We do onions only. That’s a disadvantage in some ways, but on the other hand, we know onions. We just need to be attentive to what the market needs.

“There is definitely growing demand for sweet onion products. From summer potato salads to tossed salads to blooming onions to fajita cuts, people don’t want a bold, pungent onion in a fresh dish.

“Onions are a healthy vegetable. We need to make sure they fit more people’s stomachs. It’s a good feeling to bring a good vegetable to this market. We know the proper place for each kind of onion.”

Are there challenges ahead?

Sam listed a few.

One is competition from imports from South America and, in the future, China, the world’s largest onion producer. Because of lower labor costs in these countries, “the playing field is definitely not level,” he said. On the other hand, going into fresh-cut onions was a move designed to take onions out of the commodity arena and put them into value-added.

Marketing costs are rising, right along with the price of fuel.

On the plus side, “this is a family-run business,” he said. “And there is a sincerity in the produce business that is still refreshing.”

Sam’s oldest daughter recently began working for the fresh-cut side of the company, and Jim’s oldest son graduated from college and joined in the growing process at Zappala Farms.

So the fourth generation is coming in – adding to the good feelings about the future.

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