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Sweet Smell of Profits

March 24, 1985|BRUCE KEPPEL

"I have always been an onion freak," said Farlan Myers, senior vice president and director of television programming for J. Walter Thompson Co. in Los Angeles. "I like onions."

But, Myers added, there are onions and then there are onions. And that helps explain how he got into an unusual sideline: peddling the rare Maui onion to selected supermarkets and restaurants in Southern California.

The executive bit into his first Maui onion in 1968 during a visit to Hawaii to work on a television special with entertainer Don Ho. "The taste? You can't describe it," he said. "You can only experience it. Sweet is the wrong word," he added.

Nonetheless, it wasn't until 1981 that the opportunity of sharing his experience with other Mainlanders arose. Myers had prevailed upon Carver Wilson, a horticulturist in the Kula area of Maui, where the onions grow well, to find him a supply to take home. Later that year, Wilson called to ask if Myers would like to distribute Maui onions if he shipped them to him in Los Angeles.

"Yeah, I'll take a crack at it," Myers replied.

Myers' enterprise, Maui Kula Onions, isn't alone in the minute Mainland market for the Maui onion crop, only a fraction of which leaves the islands. But he figures that he distributes between 75,000 and 100,000 pounds a year. According to Ron Nakamura, crop statistician for Hawaii's Agriculture Reporting Service, the 1984 crop of Maui onions is expected to total about 2.2 million pounds--with only about 200,000 pounds of it reaching the Mainland.

"That kind of tells you there's not a heck of a lot of the stuff coming over," Myerschuckled.

As a matter of fact, no Maui onions are coming over just now. Uncharacteristic weather conditions--a prolonged drought, followed by heavy rains this year--has delayed harvest of an anticipated February shipment until the end of the month, Myers said.

But when they're available, Southlanders may find Maui onions in selected outlets of Gelson's, Jurgensen's and Ralphs supermarkets, and in such specialty stores as Irvine Ranch Market and Vicente Foods in Brentwood. Myers said he places most of the onions by telephone; he provides an agent who picks up the onions at Los Angeles International Airport with a distribution list. The retail price can range from $2.45 a pound to more than $5, however.

A few restaurants offer the Maui onion, too, generally served sliced raw with tomatoes or fried in rings. (Myers has a few "exotic" recipes of his own for cooking Maui onions, including a version that's buttered and baked in foil. "You unpeel the foil, sprinkle a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, take a knife and fork and a bottle of beer--and you've really got an experience coming.")

For both Wilson and Myers, peddling Maui onions is only a sideline--"a hobby," Myers said--but Myers has recently expanded his line by adding Maui potato chips. "I can't get enough of those, either," he said.

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