Summer's got a lot of superheroes—just look at the movie listings. And while Tom Barnett, AKA Onion Man, doesn't wear a funny outfit and prefers to keeps a low profile, he is responsible for one of summer's biggest blockbusters: Walla Walla onion rings! Tom is involved in every aspect of production, from sowing to harvesting to bringing the onions to market. In case you're curious about his costar, the onion itself, it's an Italian import, brought to Walla Walla around 1900 by Peter Pieri. The onion's low sulfur/high water content makes it sweet enough to eat like an apple, and to inspire an expensive billboard campaign all over the Northwest. At a Burgerville near you!
How did you get into this racket?
I grew up in the "business." I never wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, or fireman—I always wanted to be a "produce man." I get up every morning loving what I do. How many people can truly say that?
Favorite part of the job?
Knowing that people wait all year for a chance to enjoy what we work so hard to grow. This isn't an easy business, but when you defy the odds and are able to produce a wonderful product from a tiny seed it's somehow very rewarding to me.
Least favorite part of the job?
I'm so busy during the summer that I don't get to spend as much time with my daughters as I'd like. I start at 4:30 am and finish around 8 or 9 pm each night.
It sounds like a pretty exclusive deal: Burgerville + Keystone. Are there any sorts of mafia-like intimidation tactics to keep other sweet onion suppliers off the gravy train?
No Tony Soprano tactics that I know of. Burgerville is unique for a smaller regional restaurant chain in that they deal directly with producers. The relationship between our company, Burgerville, and many of the other Burgerville suppliers is truly that of "family."
What is your preferred way of eating the delicacy? Rings? In salads? Fried over hot dogs?
Funny you should ask. I'm embarrassed to admit it but the big joke at my house is that we make our living with onions, yet I CAN'T STAND THEM. I've hated eating onions for as long as I can remember. My wife thinks I'm being punished for something.
What's the best way to enjoy a Walla Walla onion ring?
Dipped in a raspberry-chipotle dipping sauce. It's a secret recipe: chipotle sauce mixed with raspberry jelly.