Specialty Tomatoes Bring New Life to Produce

Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Colorful and interesting, but above all they must be flavorful.

Brown, yellow and striped tomatoes have carved out a permanent spot on the shelf next to their more familiar red relatives.

Some of the newcomers are shaped like large grapes, others flaunt the rule that tomatoes should be symmetrical, and many come attached to a vine to create the impression they were in the garden just minutes ago.

These specialty varieties have gained favor with many consumers, brought a buzz to produce and breathed new life into a very old category.

“The rising tide lifts all boats,” says Sam Maglio, president of Maglio Co., Milwaukee, WI. “Per capita tomato consumption has risen from 12 pounds in the 1970s to over 20 pounds today. The new varieties have accounted for much of that increase. Grape tomatoes are mainstream today; they were specialty items 20 years ago.”

Maglio Cos., a fifth-generation fresh produce importer, wholesaler and value-added provider, sources directly from growers across North America in order to provide safely grown, top quality fruits and vegetables.

“The bottom line is that consumers are buying more tomatoes per capita now than they were just a few years ago,” says Maglio. “The flavor profile is what keeps them coming back. Create a new, exciting sensory experience and you win a customer over. Deliver it time and time again and you have a customer for life.”

The varieties that bring distinctive colors, shapes and, above all, flavors are the stars of a flourishing category.

“Specialty tomatoes continue to be the ‘hot’ item in the tomato category,” says Helen Aquino, director of brand marketing and communications for Village Farms International, Inc., Heathrow, FL. “The reason is that they pack a lot of ‘value add’ for the consumer largely due to their mysteriousness. Their striking visual interest, the promise of exotic flavors, being marketed with intriguing names, and packaged in a variety of versatile formats, all of which contribute to the WOW factor of specialties.”

There is a reward in both the volume of tomatoes your customers will buy and the prices they will pay for devoting attention to the rising tide of specialty tomatoes.

Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. finds its line of attractively packaged multi-colored cherry and grape tomatoes fetch an impressive return.

“Some retailers are getting upwards of $4.99 a pint compared to $2.99 a pint,” says Procacci director of sales Ken White.

These premium varieties are best judged not by total volume or even dollar sales, but by how they lead in making a statement for the category or even the entire department.

“Specialty tomatoes truly revolutionized the tomato category,” says Paul Mastronardi, president and CEO of Mastronardi Produce, Leamington, Ontario. “While in the past, consumers chose from one or two tomato offerings, now they shop for multiple types of tomatoes to serve their various needs. The result has been an explosion of incremental growth for the category that still continues.”

Make Them Tasty

When asked what will bring consumers back for more specialty tomatoes, one producer after another gave the same simple answer—flavor.

“Consumers are looking for flavorful products; they want consistency in the products they purchase week in, week out, regardless of the season,” says Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer at Pure Flavor, Leamington, ON. “This is motivating greenhouse growers to continually search for the best varieties that create the most positive of eating experiences.”

Pure Flavor uses controlled-atmosphere greenhouses to offer year-round supplies of 15 varieties of heirloom, grape, cherry, snack and beefsteak tomatoes.

“We need to continue to breathe life into the produce industry with items that will not only resonate with retailers because it increases their product offering, but with consumers who are looking for healthy alternatives,” Veillon says.

“We need to continue to breathe life into the produce industry with items that will not only resonate with retailers because it increases their product offering, but with consumers who are looking for healthy alternatives.”

– Chris Veillon, Pure Flavor

Growers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers build their reputations on the ability to consistently deliver flavor.

“Our Red ‘N Tasty brand of red beefsteaks has increased consumption of tomatoes in both foodservice and retail in the Northeast,” says Lucky Lee, vice president for sales at Lucky’s Real Tomatoes, Brooklyn, NY. “Now that consumers know flavorful beefsteaks are available year-round, winter sales have substantially increased. We all miss that summertime flavor, but now we don’t have to with Red ‘N Tasty tomatoes.”

The Marcelli family started Lucky’s 40 years ago to bring the highest quality tomatoes to New York’s finest restaurants, and the company has developed a network of farms providing field-ripened heirloom, grape and cherry, Roma, and yellow and red beefsteaks to consumers throughout the Northeast.

“Lucky’s Real Tomatoes specializes in crimson varieties of field-grown vine-ripes, which are full flavor tomatoes,” says Lee. “There is absolutely a consumer demand for that ‘old time flavor’ of garden tomatoes year-round. We are pleased to feature ‘Red ‘N Tasty’ brand tomatoes that fulfill that demand. These tomatoes cut fire engine red on the inside and are bursting with flavor.”

Many producers and suppliers agree that consistently good flavor drives long-term specialty tomato sales.

“Flavor and freshness are major factors for a premium tomato product,” says Lori Castillo, vice president of marketing for NatureSweet, San Antonio, TX. “By offering a consistently flavorful tomato year-round, shoppers don’t have to waiver on flavor ever.”

NatureSweet uses its complex of greenhouses in Texas to offer year-round supply of numerous specialty tomatoes.

Great flavor at a good price, above all else, drives specialty tomato sales long-term.

“Local is a strong factor in a consumer’s decision to buy produce,” says Jim DiMenna, president of Red Sun Farms, Leamington, Ontario. “Organic has a good following from consumers, as well, but flavor, availability and price all play big parts in the final decision to buy.”

Specialty tomatoes are defined as the smaller snacking varieties of various shapes and colors. “The specialty tomatoes that continue to gain traction at retail are the varieties that also offer a unique eating experience with distinctive full-flavor profiles,” observes Village Farms’ Aquino. “So, it can be said that while all specialties are snackers, all snackers are not specialties. For example, a red grape tomato, while considered a snacker, does not have anything unique about its shape, color, or flavor to define it as a ‘specialty’.”

Red Sun Farms has greenhouse facilities throughout Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to produce peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, including specialties, as close as possible to their end markets.

“The tomato category continues to trend higher toward these types of tomatoes because of flavor and added availability at reasonable price levels,” says DiMenna. “Growing them in Mexico, Canada and the United States also gives them a year-round availability that consumers appreciate. The consumption of fresh tomatoes has risen, and the specialty category has played a big part of the demand.”

To make this category work well, it is essential above all to put the fruit to the taste test. “Specialty tomatoes deliver a better flavor experience than commodity tomatoes,” says Mastronardi.

Vine-ripes always look interesting but it is worth the time to cut one open and take a taste and to ask how long it has been since that vine was attached to a plant.

Make Them Interesting

Just as the tomatoes must deliver on flavor, the packages used to display most of the specialties should give a clear view of the fruit, provide information and grab your attention.

“The product in the specialty category is usually in a package and not sold bulk,” says DiMenna. “On the packaging, the opportunity is there to describe the product, share a recipe and add the flavor profile.”

Packages make it possible to offer more than one variety of the grape or cherry tomatoes that play a significant role in the specialty tomato category.

“Some of the latest trends we’re seeing include variety packs that offer several different varieties of tomatoes together in one package,” says NatureSweet’s Castillo. “We offer our Constellation pack, which includes all of our top small tomato varieties, giving consumers the all-in-one option they’re looking for on the shelf.”

Many of the variety packs include tomatoes of many colors that combine for a striking impact.

“The product in the specialty category is usually in a package and not sold bulk. On the packaging, the opportunity is there to describe the product, share a recipe and add the flavor profile.”

– Jim DiMenna, Red Sun Farms

“It’s always about the colors,” says White from Procacci Bros. “We’re seeing a lot of grape and cherry tomatoes of different colors. Along with more colors, you’re seeing packaging to go with it.”

There is a potential issue brewing because of consumer reaction to the petroleum-based material used in the hard-shell plastic packages that commonly display many specialty tomatoes.

“There is a lot of focus on packaging,” says White. “You’re seeing more and more biodegradable packaging.”

This eye on the environment could lead to resurgence of “new” packaging that is actually old school.

“There are spectacular new packaging ideas that actually revert back to ‘old school’ marketing methods,” says Maglio. “We are seeing lots of paperboard containers coming back into vogue. There is a push to eliminate single use plastics from the consumer stream, and the ‘special’ produce items garner the most attention using these new packaging methods. Veg-Fresh Farms [in Corona, CA,] has this new package.”

The many bold and unusual colors of specialty tomatoes offer an opportunity to build striking displays that capture attention.

“You can have all the colors lined up, the brown, the yellow, the gold, with the reds mixed in,” White says. “I’ve seen a few retailers display them right next to the door when you come in.”

Retailers do well to keep a constant eye out for newer specialty varieties because producers are competing to come up with the next big thing.

“Growers are after the elusive varieties that not only have a great yield but also that unique flavor profile that will separate it from the rest,” says Veillon. “Pure Flavor spent a number of years in R&D to develop the new RedRoyals Sweet Cherry Tomatoes on the Vine. The consistency of this product is second to none. The Pure Flavor Craft House Collection is designed for the culinary artist in you. The Craft House Mini San Marzano tomatoes are a specialty type tomato, a limited variety, that can be both a snacking tomato and a chef’s great hidden ingredient.”

Appealing displays can add far more to the entire produce department than the relatively modest dollar value of specialty tomato sales.

“These are not high tonnage items,” says Maglio. “What they do is present the selling entity as an innovator in the produce space. You always wanted to hang around with the ‘cool kids’ in high school. Most of these specialty tomatoes have a limited appeal. Not every consumer thinks that a brown tomato is appetizing, no matter how tasty it may be. The mini tomatoes give the consumer a taste of several varieties; this reassures the buyer that there will most likely be a flavor profile that they enjoy.”

Make Them Convenient

Tomatoes are used in many ways, and it is important that the category include varieties that suit those different purposes.

“NatureSweet grows each tomato variety for a specific usage occasion,” says Castillo. “For example, our Glory tomatoes are grown specifically for cooking.”

If there is one purpose that stands out as on the rise, it is snacking, which most suits the grape or cherry varieties.

“There is a trend away from the three meals a day that our parents and grandparents advocated for,” says Maglio. “Today we see snacking trends that are definitely not chips and candy bars; the new consumer buys mini vegetables and hand-held fruits to eat throughout the day. That’s why it is more important than ever to broaden the scope of locations that have these products available for the active consumer.”

“The same store owner can serve multiple demographics within a single city. We have not seen any one-size-fits-all approach here.”

– Sam Maglio, Maglio Co.

The packs appropriate for snacking tend to be much smaller than those geared toward using tomatoes in cooking or salads.

“Specialty tomatoes are often packed in unique formats that are geared toward snacking,” says Veillon. “The traditional larger formats of 1.5-pound and 2-pound are more reserved for club stores. A new pack style for an existing item won’t increase consumption; fresh new items that are focused on convenience or enhanced flavor profiles can help ring the bell on a number of levels.”

The future looks bright for specialty tomatoes. “The specialty tomato category is here to stay,” says Village Farms’ Aquino. “It has continued to be the only substantial growth segment within a relatively flat top five category. Retailers are hard-pressed to find the right SKU mix that will meet their consumer demographic. The good news is this tomato segment is breathing new life into a sea of red with new shapes, new colors, and lots of intriguing flavors.”

The bottom line on which specialty tomatoes should be carried, and how they are most effectively displayed, is know your different customers.

“Local has a story. Organic has a lifestyle. Conventional has mass appeal. All three are important to the consumer,” says Maglio. “There is, however, an expectation by a store’s clientele as to what is important. The retailer needs to play to its audience while the purveyor needs to have a variety of offerings. The same store owner can serve multiple demographics within a single city. We have not seen any one-size-fits-all approach here.”