The Tomato Revolution

Tomato SelectionPhoto courtesy of NatureFresh Farms

For 20 years the category has grown with state-of-the-art ideas from seed to store — innovating new varieties while maintaining popularity of the originals.

Backyard Farms Display

Photo courtesy of Backyard Farms

In the past two decades, the tomato category increased significantly in sales, choice offerings and its importance to the produce department.

“The tomato category has grown into a Top Five category in both sales and profit for most retailers,” says Keith Cox, produce category manager for K-VA-T Food Stores in Abingdon, VA, operating 132 stores. “In the last several years, the variety and the eating experience have continually improved.”

Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing with Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., in Coral Gables, FL, says tomatoes remain one of the most consumed produce items in the United States. “This makes it a necessity for retail produce departments to have an assortment of high-quality tomatoes available year-round,” he says.

George’s Market at Dreshertown, an upscale independent grocer in Dresher, PA, has seen its tomato section evolve considerably in the past 20 years. “Back then, the entire tomato section was on an end cap,” says Nancy Grace, produce manager. “Today, it has quadrupled in size and includes a relatively complex variety of tomatoes.”

Another factor contributing to more year-round choice has been the addition of newer methods of growing. “The most recent change in the tomato category has been a significant shift to hot house, or protected agriculture production, both with Mexico and domestic product,” says Christou.

Consumer education plays another role, according to Jim DiMenna, chief executive of Red Sun Farms, Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. “Consumers have become more educated on varieties, recipe applications, ethical growing standards, organic requirements and food safety practices,” he says. “These higher standards result in the need for better communication from a brand standard.”

Variety Influences Sales

A focus on great-tasting variety will yield good returns.

NatureFresh Tom Bar

NatureFresh Farms’ TomBar allows shoppers to select up to 13 greenhouse-grown snacking tomatoes. (Photo courtesy of NatureFresh Farms)

“While some retailers may have 20 or more varieties or packaging choices, retailers should always stock tomatoes with good, consistent flavor,” says Cox. “Have a slicing size, grape and Roma tomato, as these three are at the top of most consumers’ needs.”

NatureFresh Farms in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, bears witness to the explosion in the types of tomatoes offered. “These include red/yellow/orange grapes, red cherry, mixed medley, cocktails, beefsteak, tomatoes on the vine, heirlooms and Romas,” says Chris Veillon, director of marketing. “We’ve seen an evolution in the formats they are sold in, including bulk, cluster, clamshell, bag and top seal film.”

Roma tomatoes continue to be the leading variety from a tonnage standpoint and are Number Two in dollars, according to Christou. “New varieties are being tested that bring more flavor and perform better based on usage,” he says.

According to Lori Castillo, marketing director for NS Brands Limited in San Antonio, when consumers go to the store, they typically purchase 1.1 tomatoes per trip. “We know what they really want are two tomatoes — a smaller size for salads and snacking, and a larger size for sandwiches,” she says.

Jim Darroch, director of marketing with Backyard Farms in Madison, ME, recommends ordering based on customer feedback. “It’s not easy to find time to ask customers what they want, but it’s incredibly important,” he says.

Eric T. Janke, vice president and chief operating officer of DiMare Fresh Inc., Fort Worth, TX, agrees retailers should cater to their audience to increase sales. “Variety has more of an impact on a regional basis versus a national basis based on demographics,” he says.

George’s Market at Dreshertown uses variety to spike customer interest. “Some of our basic varieties are tomatoes on the vine, beefsteaks and, of course, grape and Compari,” says Grace. “When local Jersey tomatoes are available, they are the superstars.”

K-VA-T Food Stores maintains a good variety, yet keeps consumer differentiation in taste and usage in mind. “A retailer may not sell a large volume of green tomatoes, for example,” says Cox. “Yet, they must be in stock for that special recipe the consumer may have.”

Sometimes too many varieties can overwhelm consumers. “This prevents the required turn rates to ensure the freshest possible produce being offered,” says Red Sun Farms’ DiMenna. “Each retailer carefully balances available varieties with retail space and their target market needs.”

Variety also helps the retailer in price. “It is imperative to carry several options to vary price point, “says Douglas Kling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Village Farms International in Heathrow, FL. “On a profit-per-square-foot-basis, drive a higher average with specialty items along with some standard items like tomatoes on the vine and beefsteak.”

Presentation and Promotion

Shop & Save TomatoesThe surge in variety has brought about a more precise process in how each tomato is promoted through packaging and display. “Our cooking varieties — beefsteak, tomatoes on the vine and Romas — are sold in larger pack formats,” says DiMenna.

Sam Maglio, president of Maglio Companies in Milwaukee, suggests cross-promoting beefsteaks with the meat department. “Think about a small display outside of the produce department and keep it culled and stocked,” he says. “The main display can be wide and tall, but not deep — tomatoes do not like the pressure caused by the weight of tall piles.”

For tomatoes on the vine, Maglio recommends simplicity. “The vines’ aroma triggers thoughts of summer, so it’s important to not tray and overwrap them,” says Maglio. “It is tempting to reduce the shrink from handling, but this is one item that needs to provide sensory stimulation.”

Maglio says large displays of plum tomatoes increase sales. “This is a meaty variety and can withstand the stacking, so pile high and cross-merchandise with peppers, onions and avocados for a fresh pico de gallo. In late summer, local supplies of plum become the perfect ingredient for canning.”

Appearance and presentation are important when promoting specialty tomatoes. Red Sun Farm’s heirlooms and its proprietary Cocoa Tomato are sold in smaller pack configurations or individually since they are used as either accent pieces to traditional recipes or as a decorative condiment for specialty dishes. “As these varieties become more mainstream, there will be demand to provide them in larger pack sizes,” says DiMenna.

Maglio cautions producers and buyers to make thoughtful choices on heirlooms. “While they provide a diverse selection, it can be difficult for the consumer to identify what they like and become a repeat purchaser,” he says. “My suggestion is to focus on one or two varieties, and build a following for those. They need to look similar to the mainstream products in order to be appealing. Zebra striped green and purple tomatoes don’t seem like tomatoes, and consumers can’t tell when they are ripe.”

Cherry tomatoes may find a special niche with health-conscious Millennials.

“Merchandise cherry tomatoes to feature high flavor and as a healthy, portable snack option,” says Kling.

Increased variety has also led to more packaging options. According to Rick Feighery, vice president of sales with Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., Philadelphia, packaging has changed considerably in the past 20 years in providing options to consumers. “Today, the increased displays of clamshells, overwrap trays and bags add value to customers,” he says. “In many departments, about 70 percent of produce items are prepackaged in some fashion.”

Consumer-friendly packaging draws attention to smaller varieties and their specific application. “Snacking varieties such as Monarch Pearls, Scarlet Pearls and organic grapes are sold in pack sizes geared for sharing and snacking,” says Red Sun Farms’ DiMenna.

Packaging designed to appeal to the health-conscious consumer promotes usage. “Our Bon Bon grape tomatoes are exceptionally sweet and come in a 5.5-ounce grab-and-go cup for the on-the-go consumer and a patented re-sealable snacking bag,” says Del Monte Fresh’s Christou.

Display, Connect, Sell

A profitable connection with the consumer starts with a good display. “The racks and displays we provide retailers to aid in merchandising efforts can help increase sales nearly 30 percent,” says NS Brands’ Castillo. “We also provide promotional shippers and POS materials.”

K-VA-T Food Stores’ Cox says a secondary display is a must to drive tomato sales and profit. “Change out the tomato weekly to promote each variety, since many times this will be an impulse buy for the consumer,” says Cox.

GreenhouseMaglio recommends retailers acquire half-pint units if possible. “These can be placed at the checkout in lieu of the traditional candy bars, and retail for 99 cents,” he says.

George’s Market at Dreshertown emphasizes the importance of diverse sizes in its produce section. “Beautiful packaging of smaller tomatoes, such as Compari, Constellation and Cherubs to name a few, adds dimension to our display,” says Grace.

For smaller variety tomatoes, Backyard Farms’ Darroch recommends good product placement. “Put the packaging to work by stacking cocktail varieties vertically so consumers see the product and recognize the branding.”

To further consumer connection, Christou recommends using point-of-sale material and recipe guides to enhance tomato displays. “Retailers may place small signage around the product describing the health benefits, nutritional information and proper handling instructions,” he says.

Helping busy consumers solve meal prep challenges is a great way to build loyalty while increasing the sale of complementary products.

“Hannaford Supermarkets is doing a great job of this by placing large recipe cards with photos of other ingredient products at the point of sale,” says Darroch.

George’s Market at Dreshertown creates displays using sight and smell. “Heirlooms and heirloom grape/cherry varieties add color; when avocados are added for a color break, it helps drive sales on both avocados and tomatoes,” says Grace. “Add basil for an amazing aromatic effect.”

TV, Pinterest and Facebook drive demand as they connect with consumers.

“This has contributed to the demand for specialty varieties,” says DiMenna. “Online recipe resources also add credibility to the brand, as consumers will more likely purchase a brand they are aware of, follow and trust.”

Proccaci Brothers’ Feighery agrees these formats have been a contributing factor. “We’ve seen an increase in demand for specialty varieties due in part to online recipes and popular television cooking shows,” he says.

Focusing on origin and sustainability also promotes consumer connection. Village Farms’ Kling recommends using POS featuring fresh, healthy photos of farms and families enjoying product. “Strong features on environmental farms with sustainable characteristics attract attention based on the dynamics of ‘where is my food coming from,’” he says. “People want to know where their product is coming from and what growing partners offer that appeal.”

DiMare Fresh’s Janke agrees developing a link between the consumer and product origin builds business. “Many types of tomatoes are based on regional ‘locally grown’ programs,” he says.

Lucky Lee, vice president of sales for Lucky’s Real Tomatoes in Brooklyn, NY, sees the focus on local only getting stronger. “For many Americans, outside of their local growing season, that means ‘grown in the USA,’” she says. “Consumers will always continue to look for that summertime flavor, most often found in their local field-grown, seasonal tomatoes.”

Innovative Ideas

Innovative merchandising ideas create enthusiasm not only for the category, but for the customer as well.

“Based on feedback we heard during a ‘Meet Your Produce Manager’ breakout session at the 2015 PMA Fresh Summit in Atlanta, we developed a 360-degree merchandiser allowing produce teams to display all our products simultaneously,” says Backyard Farms’ Darroch. “They are portable enough to set up for key tomato-buying events like the Super Bowl or Cinco de Mayo, yet durable enough to live in the department for months at a time.”

NatureFresh Farms launched two new tools in 2016 — the TomBar and the TomBall Machine —to help increase fresh produce consumption and reduce food waste, and engage consumers while delivering choice, quality and value.

The TomBar is set up like a self-serve salad bar and offers up to 13 greenhouse-grown snacking tomatoes. “Hand-selected by the consumer, they can take as many different types as they like, or as few as they need,” says Veillon.

The TomBall Machine is based on the same concept as the gumball machine and offers a self-serve solution for consumers to select the quantity and type of grape tomato they want. Consumers hand-pack the tomatoes in the TomBox, a container similar to a Chinese takeout container and made from 100 percent recycled board. Waste is reduced because consumers select only what they want. “Consumers can mix and match their favorite grape tomatoes,” says Veillon. “ They can take as few or as much as they want of any of their favorite red, yellow or orange snacking tomatoes.”

Advertising campaigns are effective in highlighting tomatoes. NS Brands’ Castillo says campaigns showcasing good quality from the beginning can be a significant promoting tool. “While ‘Tomatoes Raised Right’ is our newest campaign, it’s all about our company’s philosophy of growing our tomatoes from start to finish,” says Castillo. “Raising something right doesn’t happen in a day, so we are vertically integrated, controlling everything from seed to shelf.”

Successful tomato sales begin with the seed. Backyard Farms has breeders trying to find the next best-tasting tomato. “These days, the emphasis is on small snacking and mixed medley grape tomato packs, including mini Heirloom and mini San Marzano varieties,” says Darroch. “These are on-trend, niche items that are great complements to in-store education campaigns on healthy eating and snacking.”

Procacci Brothers credits good flavor with consistent work on a good seed. “Most of the tomatoes we grow are from our own seed company,” says Feighery. “Our varieties provide a consistent flavor profile year-round from multiple growing locations. Our research and development team works diligently year-round searching for new tomato varieties that offer the same characteristic.”

New varieties have the potential to accelerate sales in the category. According to Village Farms’ Kling, the company’s Heavenly Villagio Marzano (exclusive Mini San Marzano) continues to build equity with consumers based on strong flavor, great mouthfeel and a shelf life in excess of 21 days. “In addition, our True Rebel Mix Medley continues to grow based on strong consumer appeal for new items, color variety and flavor,” says Kling.

Avoid Mistakes

Regardless of innovation and marketing, basic handling and quality issues are the foundation of a good tomato program. Del Monte’s Christou recommends several components retailers should follow and maintain to ensure tomatoes are kept at their best. “Starting with receiving, retailers should inspect product dates and product package integrity upon arrival,” he says. “Tomato inventories should also be checked and product rotation should be managed constantly to ensure FIFO (First In, First Out).”

“Narrowing product offering can help reduce shrink via higher-quality items or locally grown items with significantly less food miles.”

— Chris Veillon, NatureFresh Farms

At the end of the day though, Backyard Farms’ Darroch says it’s all about produce managers keeping their staffs trained. “They must stay on top of product rotation and not overstack the product,” he says.

Maglio notes the challenge of refrigeration and transportation on tomato flavor. “Once that tender piece of fruit goes below 50 degrees, irreversible chemical changes happen within the tomato, permanently altering the flavor,” he says. “Warehousing and transportation tend to be the critical points of loss. Trucks typically have three temperatures: frozen (0 degrees), refrigerated (38 degrees) and ambient (0 to 100 degrees). None of those temperatures are ideal for tomatoes, but they end up in the refrigerated compartment wrapped up to help protect them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Christou advises storing between 55 and 60 degrees. “It is important to promptly place them in unrefrigerated displays or storage to avoid extreme temperatures,” he says. “It’s important for retailers to educate and train produce department employees to prevent and correct handling mistakes.”

Retailers concerned with minimizing risk of shrink will maximize profits. “This 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 demands while avoiding saturation,” says Red Sun Farms’ DiMenna. “The best way to avoid this is with good management from the seed to the store.”

DiMare Fresh’s Janke recommends larger displays by variety, consistent rotation, improved quality and freshness to turn inventory. “Competitive retail pricing also sells product faster,” he says.

Keith Cox of K-VA-T Food Stores says certain retailers will move more or less volume. “Each retailer must find that magic number to keep the momentum going,” he says.

Packaging also plays a role in keeping product fresh and attractive.

“There is increased desire for a guaranteed ‘best if used by’ date on products,” says NS Brands’ Castillo. “The ability to guarantee fresh, tasty and convenient products is important in driving retail sales.”

Cox believes packaged tomatoes may not be as sensitive as loose tomatoes in some instances. “Some consumers don’t have, or take the time, to pick out tomatoes individually,” he says.

Market proximity may help ensure quality and shelf-life as well.

“Narrowing product offering can help reduce shrink via higher-quality items or locally grown items with significantly less food miles,” says NatureFresh’s Veillon.

Lucky’s Real Tomatoes distributes through its Brooklyn, NY, facility strategically located close to its Northeast customer base. “Our Tasti-Lee tomatoes are packaged on-demand in our facility, enabling us to deliver fresher product and extending shelf life for our customers,” says Lee.

Merchandising Matters

The Southern fruit season typically starts in May and runs through February, depending on the crop. Promotions can be found almost every month. Savvy retailers will make sure they are marketing the ripest fruit at peak times.

“Fruit consumption is such an integral part of a healthy diet, but many consumers don’t fully realize that sweet, ripe fruit can be a delicious and nutritious dessert,” says Leifermann. “A great tip for retailers is to pair a variety of fruits with chocolate or hazelnut dipping sauces, whipped cream and powdered sugar.”

Carricarte notes sales of southern fruit — especially tropicals — have increased due to retailers giving them a chance on the shelves. “

They are sampling the items and introducing customers to tastes they’ve never experienced before. It’s like mangos, which 20 years ago no one really knew much about; now everyone loves them. I see dragon fruit and guava really taking off in this way.”

Maria Brous, director of community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc., in Lakewood, FL, says the retailer highlights southern fruit offerings in its stores, just as it does every season. “Publix believes deeply in communicating with its customers and associates about the importance of the seasonality of fruit,” she says. “This is achieved through our program, ‘At Season’s Peak,’ which highlight the benefits of each fruit and its optimal flavor profile.”

Through the At Season’s Peak program, Publix shares information in-store, on radio and TV, and via digital advertising for several southern fruits, including strawberries in February and March; mixed berries in June; peaches and nectarines in July and August; honeydews and cantaloupes in August; and honeydews and cantaloupe in September.

“As a Southeastern retailer, we benefit from the local relationships we’ve formed over the decades and are proud to showcase our suppliers,” says Brous.

North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Hardison says cross-promotion in the store can also boost sales, and retailers should be creative.

“For strawberries, matching them with chocolate or champagne is always a great idea,” he says. “I’ve even seen strawberries marketed with meats, so there’s really no end to what retailers can do to help promote them.”

Of course, with unpredictable weather patterns, retailers need to be ready to act on a moment’s notice. That means having back-up plans for marketing items in case certain items are not available when expected.