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Spurred by a number of factors ? such as the resurgence of farmers? markets, innovations in greenhouse growing and the rediscovery of heirloom varieties ? the top trend in tomatoes today is flavor.
?About five years ago, American consumers started waking up to the fact that tomatoes should taste like tomatoes,? says Craig LeHoullier, a tomato adviser for Decorah, Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange. Author of the soon-to-be-released book ?Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time? (Storey Publishing, December 2014) and an unequivocal tomato expert, LeHoullier has grown more than 1,000 tomato varieties in the past several decades.
?The kiss of death for tomatoes was the round, pinkish-red hard things that are kind of glossy. Those tomatoes came about because American shoppers want produce 365 days a year ? and it?s just not always possible,? asserts LeHoullier, a former chemist.
But a new generation of consumers, one that cares about how and where their food is grown and, more importantly, what it tastes like, has emerged in recent years.
In fact, flavor is driving the fastest-growing subcategory in tomatoes. ?We know from our research that consumers prefer small tomatoes 75 percent of the time, due to their higher flavor, so we expect this trend to continue until small tomatoes make up greater than half the category,? says Michael Joergensen, marketing director for NatureSweet, a greenhouse grower of tomatoes in San Antonio.
While Joergensen notes that the overall tomato category is up slightly in dollar sales over the past year ? in the range of 3 percent to 4 percent ? small tomatoes are growing faster than any other segment.
?In late 2013, grape tomatoes became the largest segment in the category, and now they are pulling away from the pack,? he says. ?Small tomatoes now make up 32 percent of the category sales dollars, approximately double their size 10 years ago.?
To capitalize on this growth and continue to increase sales, Joergensen advises devoting more shelf space to small tomatoes. ?Small tomatoes, which represent approximately one-third of the dollars in the category, often only get 10 percent to 20 percent of the shelf space,? he points out. ?Given the direction the category is going, we think retailers should have 50 percent of their shelf space allocated to small tomatoes to maximize their dollars per pound.?
Even a passionate and avid outdoor tomato grower such as LeHoullier concedes, ?The right variety grown in a greenhouse still tastes good.? This is due in large part to industry innovation and advancements that are giving tomatoes grown indoors what they need to thrive and become full-flavored fruit.
For example, greenhouse-grown tomatoes, like sweet and flavorful NatureSweet Cherriots, are helping to drive the small-tomato-as-a-healthful-snack trend.
?Cherriots are specially grown micro-fruit, ideal for the lunchbox, the backpack and the briefcase,? notes Joergensen. ?They are rolling out now, with a retail support plan and TV advertising support.?
Mastronardi Produce/Sunset, of Kingsville, Ontario, is another greenhouse grower making flavor-packed tomatoes the new standard. Sunset?s Seriously Sweet Zima tomatoes recently won in the Best Specialty Tomato and Best Overall Tomato categories at the 8th annual Greenhouse Competition, in Leamington, Ontario.
This honor followed Mastronardi?s victory at the United Fresh show in Chicago, at which Sunset Y.E.L.O. cocktail tomatoes were named the industry?s Best New Vegetable of 2014.
Y.E.L.O., which stands for ?Youth Energy Life Om,? comes from the same greenhouse as Campari brand cocktail tomatoes. ?With such a bright, unique color and nearly 50 percent more vitamin C than other red tomatoes, Y.E.L.O. has definitely become a foodie and family classic,? says CEO Paul Mastronardi.
The Local Route
Locally grown tomatoes can be highly profitable by providing consumers with that fresh-from-the farm experience.
?I see more supermarkets creating an alternative to the farmers? market by offering locally grown tomatoes,? observes LeHoullier. ?It?s giving people the option of doing all of their shopping in one stop.?
BJ?s Wholesale Club, based in Westborough, Mass., has implemented a highly successful ?Farm to Club? program created to promote locally grown produce, including beefsteak tomatoes.
The retailer, which launched the program in 2011 with peppers, cucumbers, yellow and green squash, and tomatoes, has since expanded it to include green beans, eggplant, blueberries, peaches and watermelon.
?BJ?s is the only retailer/wholesaler that stands behind a defined statement of what ?locally grown? means,? asserts produce buyer Dominic Viglione. ?We define local? only if it is grown in the state and sold in the state.?
Currently, BJ?s sells locally grown beefsteak tomatoes in a tray that holds five medium to large tomatoes.
?Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn?t produce tomatoes in all the same size, so there is often a large disparity in the sizes of tomatoes within a tray,? notes Viglione. ?As a result, we are looking to raise our size standards and include tomatoes that are all relatively close in size. We are also looking to test a pundit basket with netting, as a new alternative to hold and display the product, as well as biodegradable/recyclable containers.?
The beefsteaks are picked in the morning and brought back to the farm, where they?re rinsed, dried and packed in trays with a UPC code. In most cases, according to Viglione, the distribution center to which they are transported is less than 100 miles from the farm. After inspection by BJ?s quality control team, the tomatoes are sent to the clubs.
?Once the product is delivered to the selected club, it is often placed out for sale less than 24 hours after it?s been picked,? says Viglione.
The program has been so well received that BJ?s plans to continue selling the field-grown beefsteak tomatoes, and is exploring the addition of heirloom varieties as well. ?We are in this program for the long haul,? vows Viglione. ?Year after year, our goal is to improve the program with an even greater variety of items.?
Not only is LeHoullier an expert grower of heirloom tomatoes, he?s also responsible for the naming and widespread cultivation of one of the most popular heirloom varieties in the country: The Cherokee Purple.
In 1990, LeHoullier received a small packet of then-unnamed seeds from John Green, of Sevierville, Tenn., along with a note indicating that they were from a kind of purple tomato given to Green?s neighbors by Native Americans some 100 years ago.
?I still get a kick out of having named what has become one of the four most popular heirloom tomatoes,? admits LeHoullier.
While heirlooms can bring customers into the store, once grocers have them there, it?s critical that their buying and tasting experience be nothing short of amazing. ?If customers are going to spend $4 or $5 a pound on heirloom tomatoes, they want it to be worth the money, and retailers want to make sure they are so that people come back to buy more,? advises LeHoullier.
A little education goes a long way here. As heirlooms are highly perishable, he suggests posting a ?Don?t Squeeze the Charmin?-reminiscent sign explaining their fragility and asking customers to be gentle with them.
Additionally, as supermarkets frequently display slightly under-ripe tomatoes, LeHoullier recommends offering proper storage and ripening tips. ?If a tomato is very firm, it isn?t yet fully ripe, but will become so sitting on the kitchen counter out of the sunlight,? he says. ?Refrigeration of tomatoes is the enemy of its full flavors, so they should always be stored at room temperature.?
Finally, celebrate the distinctiveness of heirloom tomatoes through merchandising and signage. ?Highlight the fact that each of these tomatoes is unique, tart or complex like wine, and create a market for each,? he adds. ?If the grocer is brave/bold, he or she can also indicate that the acid levels in all tomatoes ? irrespective of color, shape and size ?are essentially the same!? (What gives a tomato its sweetness is more sugar, not less acid.)
As the gatekeepers, produce managers also need to know what to look for in heirloom tomatoes. ?Look at how they are packed,? recommends Le Houllier. ?Single layer is best.
?Also, look for faults. Some varieties are prone to cracking. Irregular shape is okay, but cracks can cause bacteria to grow and decay to start,? he cautions. ?You also need to see some coloration. If it?s rock-hard and green, it?ll ripen some, but it?s not going to have the best flavor.?
?An heirloom tomato is a variety that has been known since the 1940s and can be regrown from saved seed and look the same; hence, it could be maintained through history,? explains LeHoullier. ?Some recent nonhybrids are not really heirlooms because they are from more recent times. Green Zebra and Cherokee Chocolate are examples of this.?
Hybrids, which are more disease-resistant than many of their heirloom counterparts, continue to be developed with more and more flavor.
?Hybrid varieties are created by crossing two different parents and cannot be reproduced from saved seed,? he continues. ?The best examples of [these] are probably Better Boy and the Sungold cherry tomato.?
Other popular hybrids include Big Boy, Celebrity, Big Beef, Grape and Sweet Million, Lemon Boy, and Kumato/Bruno Rosso.
Merchandising to Maximize Impulse
?Fresh tomatoes are an impulse purchase,? asserts Joergensen. ?We have seen retail success when the tomatoes are merchandised in multiple locations in the fresh produce section, especially if tied into the usage occasion.?
NatureSweet has also conducted research that shows that consumers respond to tomatoes merchandised for a specific purpose. ?By providing details on usage occasion, and perhaps some recipe ideas to go along with it,? says Joergensen, ?retailers can drive the consumer to purchase two tomatoes per trip instead of one.?
?We know from our research that consumers prefer small tomatoes 75 percent of the time, due to their higher flavor, so we expect this trend to continue until small tomatoes make up greater than half the category.?
?Michael Joergensen, NatureSweet
?We define ?local? only if it is grown in the state and sold in the state.?
?Dominic Viglione, BJ?s Wholesale Club