Tearing up over famous onion’s end

Maui Pickled Products has sent its last shipment

The well-loved Kula-based Maui Pickled Products ceased production Jan. 26. Its last shipment went out Tuesday. Local buyers and sellers are scooping up what remains on store shelves, which will be the last jars available for now. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

WAILUKU — These Maui onions are sentimental enough to make grown men cry.

The popular Maui Pickled Products, which started from a Kula onion farm nearly 50 years ago and grew to garner national fame, sent its last shipment Tuesday.

News that the longtime business ceased production Jan. 26 has been sorrowful for loyal local buyers and sellers.

“I’m sad,” said Christopher Borling, a Pukalani Superette manager who’s been working there for about 35 years. “We’ve been buying that product for many, many years. That’s the only onion I would buy. I would buy no other sweet or pickled onion.”

All remaining product sits on store shelves on Maui, other Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast.

Spiced pickled onion and pickled onion and ogo are among the last Maui Pickled Products jars on shelves at Foodland Kahului. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

That equals about six or seven bottles of spicy and sweet onions at Pukalani Superette on Saturday afternoon. Usually, the locally owned grocery store has about 70 bottles of the Japanese-style pickled veggie jars on shelves, manager Jesse Yancey said. That includes Maui Pickled Products varieties such as well-loved, but pungent, takuan (daikon radish) in plain and spicy flavors; nappa zuke (mixed vegetables); and spiced onion and ogo (Hawaiian seaweed).

“A lot of customers have been asking lately why we don’t carry more of this,” Borling said Saturday. “It’s because we can’t since it’s closing.”

This almost magical Maui onion traces its roots back to a garden-size plot in Kula that was farmed by Masaru and Celestine Uradomo under the business name M. Uradomo Farms in 1969. A Maui News editorial at the time asking “Where are those sweet Maui onions?” inspired the couple to try what was believed to be impossible: Produce onions during the winter months, according to son Ira Uradomo, Maui Pickled Products owner.

By December 1970, their first crop of winter Maui onions was ready for harvest.

Soon, though, a challenge sprouted when the pair harvested off-grade onions that weren’t suitable for market. That’s when Masaru found a book on the road fronting the farm, sparking an idea to pickle products without chemical preservatives, which were commonly used at the time, Ira said.

Masaru Uradomo, founder of M. Uradomo Farms who with wife, Celestine, began Maui Pickled Products, is pictured on the Kula onion farm in the late 1980s or early ’90s. Uradomo was hailed as the “King of Maui Onions” in a 1977 story by the Los Angeles Times. Fans of his family’s onions and products include Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan. Uradomo, 79, died July 6, 2012, at Maui Memorial Medical Center. He is survived by wife, Celestine; sons Ira and Jason; daughters Linda Uradomo-Berce and Valerie Jones; brothers Hideaki, Irving and Harold; sisters Doris Yamamoto and Clara Oda; and six grandchildren. -- Photo courtesy Lylas Uradomo

In May 1976, the couple started processing pickled onions, minus chemical preservatives. Then came the pickling of radishes, cucumbers and other veggies. New flavors were added. And Maui Pickled Products soon spread to stores near and far.

Masaru and Celestine’s pickled products have been featured on old-time TV cooking shows. Crews from Japan once came to film an onion-eating contest for a game show there. In 1977, the Los Angeles Times titled Masaru the “King of Maui Onions.” Fans included Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan, along with farmers from around the world.

“Then there were the many people who may have started off as employees, vendors or even customers that became extended family,” Ira said. “Of course, the many customers who have supported our family business are all very important.”

As the current sole operator of the farming and processing company, Ira said, the decision to close was a difficult one. Initially the hard work was gratifying. That feeling has changed.

“In the recent months it was brought to my attention that I was on a hamster wheel,” he said. “The business owned me, not the other way around. It was not an easy decision to come to. I felt like I was losing a member of my family.”

The work was nothing like the effort his parents endured, Ira said, adding that he and his brother and two sisters witnessed their sacrifices from a young age.

“They put in countless hours and days of experimenting, research and hard work on both the farming and the processing business. Always looking to improve quality, whether it was variety trials or corresponding with vendors or industry resource people. . . . My parents took a big chance and made it happen,” he said. They proved the old sayings, ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’ ”

The onion pickles go well with sandwiches or hamburgers. Takuan and ogo products are often paired with meats and other sides. The owner said the onion “adds something special” to a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.

Whatever way people eat it, the product has a consistency that kept people coming back.

“The comments I have gotten over the years by customers and family is about the products being the same consistency as when they ate it in their younger years,” Ira said. “In a way, the pickles would remind them of the good ol’ days.”

When news broke recently of Maui Pickled Products’ imminent closure, some grocers started buying a few bottles before it reached shelves.

“Our workers bought it for themselves,” Yancey said. “It went fast. They’re the local brand so people tend to go with that because they know who the family is.”

James Harmon, Foodland Kahului store director, said people will miss the special Maui pickles.

“We have a good following for that product,” he said. “Will it be missed? Oh, definitely.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.