Specialty Tomatoes Go Mainstream

Del Monte TomatoesPhoto Courtesy of Del Monte

From grapes to heirlooms, the category grows more diverse.

Tomates on the Vine

Photo Courtesy of Village Farms

It has not been that long since greenhouse tomatoes were a novelty — a way of offering this essential fruit year-round. Today, however, the major greenhouse growers compete on the basis of which tomato varieties they offer.

“We have special varieties that no one else has,” says Helen Aquino, director of brand marketing at Village Farms in Heathrow, FL. “We search the world over for specialty tomatoes. Taste profiles are different in the United States and Canada than in Europe. U.S. consumers want sweeter tomatoes, but we find they also want variation in their flavor profile.”

Village Farms has, among its proprietary varieties, a plum tomato with a unique combination of flavors. “We have exclusive rights to the Heavenly Villagio Marzano variety,” says Aquino. “It has a thicker wall, so when you bite into it you get a tart flavor followed by sweetness. It’s a mini-plum variety known for its sauce-making quality.”

A generation ago tomato lovers grew their own because supermarket shelves were filled with fruit that was picked green and gassed to give the appearance of ripeness. Today the tomato category grows ever more complex as shippers offer varieties promising to improve flavor, and also offer interesting shapes, sizes, colors — and even stories.

Specialty tomatoes have become a linchpin of the entire produce department as consumers have come to expect delicious varieties suited for many purposes, and grown in any one of a number of ways.

“Right now the primary growth in specialty tomatoes is driven by any of the ‘cocktail’ variety tomatoes, and any tomato that carries the ‘heirloom’ label,” says Mike Kemp, executive business development analyst at Market Fresh Produce, Nixa, MO. “Consumers are increasingly seeking tomatoes with a more meaty interior, a sweeter flavor and well-balanced acidity, even if it means they may have to purchase closer to consumption time than the varieties they may have eaten in the past.”

As Trendy As Yesterday

The search for better-tasting tomatoes has taken many consumers back to varieties that were grown generations ago and discarded because they could not meet the standards of an industrial agriculture demanding varieties that consistently yielded well and traveled long distances with no sign of wear.

“Heirloom tomatoes have been going on for generations, as people pass down seeds,” says Rick Feighery, vice president of Procacci Brothers in Philadelphia. “They hit the market more than 15 years ago.”

There are heirloom varieties that are widely available and generally come at a modest price premium. “We have two specialty tomatoes,” says Feighery. “One is the grape tomato, which has become a commodity. The other is the Ugly Ripe, which is grown throughout the Northeast.”

Some consumers are so enamored with these tomatoes from times past that shippers find it worth their while to go to extraordinary lengths to deliver them across the continent, still fresh from harvest. “Specialty tomatoes would be an organic mini heirloom or an organic petit Roma on the vine,” says Peter Kroner, owner of Great Eastern Refrigerated Tru, New York, NY, and representative for Eli & Ali. “Most of that is done in the west, California or western Mexico. When it’s harvested, it’s immediately flown and repacked in New York, so the consumer is getting a fresh product.”

Kroner says he finds a quality organic beefsteak tomato interesting — if it can be sourced in the middle of the winter. “I am mostly involved with organics. The conventional category is mixed with so many different tomatoes, it’s not really interesting.”

Some shippers are working with growers on varieties that retain the great taste and unique appearance of the heirlooms, but have greater ability to hold up in transit and on the shelf. “We are just coming out with a mixed heirloom tomato; it’s the only real specialty tomato product we have,” says Feighery. “We see a lot of heirloom varieties that cannot survive the supply chain. The struggle with the heirlooms is disease resistance and shelf stability.”

As much as the heirlooms draw interest, retailers find the most important trend may be toward smaller tomatoes that can be eaten out of hand. “We have seen increased customer interest in bite-sized, hand-to-mouth tomato varieties that are popular for snacking — and Campari, which has a very good flavor profile and is often used in Caprese salad,” says Jannah Jablonowski, spokesperson for supermarket chain Giant Eagle Inc., Pittsburgh.

The Tomato As A Snack

One wrinkle in the tomato market is that popping them into your mouth as a snack has joined slicing them for sandwiches and cutting them for salads or cooking . “The fastest-growing segment in specialty tomatoes falls within the snacking category,” says David Bell, chief marketing officer at Houweling’s Tomatoes, Delta, British Columbia. “Within that subset, I would say the most important specialty tomato is the premium greenhouse grape tomato; within Houweling’s that is our Sweetoms premium grape.”

At the turn of the century, Procacci Brothers was among the first shippers to regularly offer grape tomatoes. In just a few years, shippers and retailers came to see the attractiveness of this globe-shaped small tomato.

“We started with the grape tomatoes in 1999; in the past 10 years they’ve become a commodity,” says Feighery. “The grapes are all in clamshells, which makes it easier for the retailer and customer to handle.”

It is a sign of the times in the ever-changing, and always newly interesting, tomato category, that while grape tomatoes were a novelty as the century turned, today the question for retailers is how many types to carry? “Our grape tomatoes, both hydroponic and organic, are amongst our consumer favorites and are strong performers for Red Sun Farms’s portfolio,” says Jim DiMenna, chief executive of Red Sun Farms, Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. “We have a number of sought-after specialty types, including organics, heirlooms and bite-size varieties.”

Grape tomatoes have become so widespread that major shippers are competing to offer the best-tasting, most conveniently packaged products. “The best-selling tomatoes in the category are grape or cocktail tomatoes,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president for marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., Coral Gables, FL. “They have a consistent appearance, quality and flavor profile that appeals to consumers. New snacking varieties have also been instrumental in expanding the consumption of tomatoes, especially for those on-the-go and with busy lifestyles. Our Bon Bon grape tomatoes are super sweet and come in a grab-n-go 5.5-ounce cup for the on-the-go consumer, and a patented resealable snacking bag.”

Because the grape tomato has gone mainstream, what makes it special are varieties grown for consistent great taste.

“While the grape tomato is not new, the category is seeing separation from the standard, inconsistent tasting product found in veggie trays or low-priced value packs, with the emergence of premium-tasting varieties,” says Houweling’s Bell. “These premium product offerings deliver a snacking experience that creates high consumption and repeat purchase at retail. While the cost to the consumer is higher, the visual of young kids reaching for tomatoes instead of junk food is something that parents can’t discount.”

Even shippers, who choose not to dabble in the heirlooms and other fragile varieties, generally include grape tomatoes as a staple product. “Grape tomatoes are very popular,” says Lyle Bagley, sales and marketing representative at Sunripe Certified Brands in Palmetto, FL. “We do grapes, cherries, rounds and Romas.”

These snacking varieties can be the gateway into the entire category of specialty tomatoes. “Grape tomato consumers can definitely be persuaded to switch through marketing tactics,” says Christou. “We recommend using point-of-sale material and recipe guides to help enhance all tomato displays. Retailers may place small signage around the product describing the health benefits, nutritional information and proper handling instructions. We encourage retailers to use information brochures, price cards and recipe cards to their full potential in order to attract and educate consumers on the various types of tomatoes.”

The Right Stuff

The first step in merchandising the many specialty tomatoes is giving some thought to a display that is both striking and attractive — but the fruit must then deliver on the promise of great flavor.

“I believe that someone’s first experience with the product is driven by visual senses,” says DiMenna. “The container package design, graphics, product color and shape all play an important role in the purchase decision. However, after that first experience, our quality produce will spark repeat sales.”

The best-looking ripe tomatoes, the most inviting, should be placed at the front of the display. “Consumers consider visual appeal to be a key factor in choosing their tomatoes, thus retailers should remember to keep their tomato displays full, clean and well organized at all times,” says Christou. “Red, ripe tomatoes should be placed in the front of displays since they move quicker and bruise easier, and overripe fruit should be removed.”

The presentation can be enhanced through displaying the tomatoes with complementary items that suggest a use, while also adding to the visual interest. “Cross-merchandising with products like avocados, fresh mozzarella and living basil can add visual interest to the display, while temporary displays incorporating other products provide unique opportunities to tie into seasonal promotions,” says Giant Eagle’s Jablonowski. “For example, during the summer grilling season, Giant Eagle locations may feature a display in the meat section showcasing ground beef, hamburger buns and locally grown tomatoes. At other times, customers may experience a Giant Eagle BLT or Caprese salad event, featuring a secondary tomato display that highlights all of the ingredients that make up the popular recipes.”

This involves borrowing a page from a sales book already tried and proven in other areas of the store.

“Cross-merchandising has long been a successful tactic in traditional packaged goods and translates well to produce,” says Houweling’s Bell. “Beautiful tomatoes, with fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella, are a great example of items that can be merchandised together and create instant meal ideas.”

Sampling can take these cross-merchandising displays to an entirely new level by showing how the tomatoes can be used. “Cross-merchandising can increase sales on a specific item when partnering with a complimentary product,” says Red Sun Farms’ DiMenna. “Sampling with another item can add versatility, and it promotes new, creative ways to use the product. As consumers are consistently finding ways to use specialty tomatoes, this has improved consumption to a large extent.”

There are more possibilities for cross-merchandising with tomatoes than just about any product within produce. “Tomatoes offer many cross-merchandising opportunities because they can be combined with many different items, especially in the produce department,” says Del Monte’s Christou. “By cross-merchandising, retailers have the opportunity to increase tomato sales and sales of related products.”

Cross-merchandising works because, with specialty tomatoes, you are selling an experience, not just another piece of fruit. “Today, with all the new varieties currently on the shelf, and more being introduced every year, I believe sampling some of these new varieties will pay big dividends to top-line sales and customer satisfaction,” says Market Fresh Produce’s Kemp. “I’m a big fan of cross-merchandising, or as I like to refer to it, ‘suggestive selling.’ Don’t just sell a tomato; sell a complete recipe or event.”

Even when there are no promotions or samples, well-placed complimentary items can add to the visual appeal. “Placing other produce in the display, like avocados, can be eye-catching because it helps to vary the color,” says Christou. “By adding other produce items to the display, retailers create a customer-friendly, one-stop-shop opportunity where customers can find all of the ingredients for their favorite tomato recipes and help to promote related products. Large bulk displays also help to convey an image of freshness, and consumers appreciate this type of display as they engage in selecting their produce in a natural way.”

Del Monte works with retailers to optimize their tomato displays and cross-merchandising programs. “Our merchandisers are able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual produce departments in order to identify how different promotions and cross-merchandized items affect their sales,” says Christou.

Selling Solutions

Some shippers offer packages that combine different specialty tomatoes, which can make for an interesting display.

“Constellation is a medley pack with four different varieties,” says Lori Castillo, brand manager for NatureSweet, San Antonio. “It’s a colorful blend with Sunburst, a yellow cherry snack tomato; Glories, an orange grape that is super sweet; and a ‘chocolate’ tomato. We got into it in 2014, when we started seeing these medley packs at retail; and the growth is exponential. We haven’t had a month without growth.”

NatureSweet grows all of the tomatoes it ships in its own greenhouses, which the company believes gives them the ability to offer consistent quality. Consistent quality, more than anything else, will drive the long-term success of a specialty tomato program. “Marketing tactics can indeed persuade the consumer, be it on-pack communication or product tie-ins,” says Houweling’s Bell. “However, the ability to switch a consumer once is different than converting a consumer from one segment or type of specialty to another. The product has to live up to the expectations. ‘Fresh’ can be big and bold on the package, but if the consumer is bringing home soft, aged product, the brand promise is not upheld.”

The display, samples and promotions may get consumers to try the product once, but only a great tomato will bring them back. “Strong marketing campaigns can influence customers to try something new,” says Red Sun Farms’ DiMenna. “However, if the experience is disappointing, consumers will return to the product that delivers them the best quality and flavor experience.”

Major shippers offer a wider variety of tomatoes than in the past, and are working to extend shelf life. “Our greenhouse-grown tomatoes include TOVs, beef, cherry and grape,” says Christou. “Our field-grown tomatoes include Roma, rounds, grapes and vine-ripe. We’ve also started focusing on snacking varieties with the growing demand of healthy, on-the-go snack items.”

In selling tomatoes, retailers are really selling answers for many different eating occasions. “More often than not, our customers are selecting their tomatoes based off of eating occasion,” says Giant Eagle’s Jablonowski. “For example, customers may choose a larger tomato variety if they are planning on making a sandwich, or a variety with a strong flavor for making sauce. With that in mind, at Giant Eagle we are committed to providing our customers with consistently high-quality tomatoes that meet their preferences.”

Shrink The Shrink

High-quality tomatoes that move fast and store well go a long way toward reducing shrink.

“Minimizing your risk of shrink can be achieved by procuring quality produce with the freshest possible shelf life, as well as offering enough diversity in the category to meet consumer demand while avoiding saturation,” says Jim DiMenna, chief executive of Red Sun Farms, Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. “Having a diverse product line is always beneficial; however, having too many specialties can increase the risk of slow movers not selling. The best way to avoid that is with good management from the seed to the store.”

The most important part of reducing shrink is careful control of the supply from ordering to the field, in transit, at the distribution center and on the produce department shelves.

“Supply chain management is one way to reduce shrink,” says Bell. “Storing tomatoes too cold destroys flavor, whereby fluctuations in the storage temperature — from a cold truck to a warm receiving dock, to cold storage, to a warm retail shelf — will speed-up degradation. Additionally, active management by produce team members to remove off-quality product will reduce overall shrink. The adage ‘one bad apple, spoils the bunch’ rings true, as does the consumer perception. Good quality, well-merchandised products increase consumer appeal.”

Adequate training of store and distribution center personnel is even more important with this highly perishable treasure.

“Much more attention must be given to training and educating all the people who handle today’s tomatoes than in the past,” says Mike Kemp, executive business development analyst at Market Fresh Produce, Nixa, MO. “That starts in the repacking facilities and flows all the way through to the consumer. Any mishandling by any one of the workers in this supply chain, including the consumer and sales, and credibility suffers.”

Consistent rotation will go a long way toward minimizing having to throw product away. “The key to avoiding shrink is quality and rotation,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., Coral Gables, FL. “If retailers focus on purchasing a quality tomato, then they will have less shrink in their stores. Once there, they need to rotate. Temperature abuse is the biggest handling mistake. Tomatoes are best when stored at temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit; and it is important to promptly place them in unrefrigerated displays or storage to avoid extreme temperatures. It is most important that retailers educate and train their produce department employees in order to prevent and correct handling mistakes.”

Inventory control begins long before the tomatoes reach the produce department, with good practices at the receiving dock. “Good receiving and handling practices are important parts of a successful tomato program,” says Christou. “There are several components retailers should follow and maintain in order to make sure tomatoes are kept at their best. Starting with receiving, retailers should inspect product dates and product package integrity.”

Sales will be consistent once a retailer finds the right price point for its customers, and offers a reliably quality tomato.

“Price will always increase demand, as long as the quality and flavor of the produce isn’t sacrificed,” says DiMenna. “A key point of difference at Red Sun Farms is our vertical integration. This means that we control the highest level of quality from seed to table, ensuring that our consumers have the best possible experience. This standard has exemplified our category growth and established Red Sun Farms as a reliable and quality-driven supplier.”