NatureSweet connects with avid home tomato gardenersNatureSweet Ltd. staged its 50th Homegrown Tomato Challenge on Aug. 24 in St. Louis, and three tomato consumers went home with checks for $2,500.

San Antonio-based NatureSweet plans two similar events. On Sept. 7, an event is planned at the Arvada, Colo., King Soopers in the Denver area. On Sept. 14, an event is planned at the Johns Creek, Ga., Kroger in the Atlanta area.

The St. Louis event was unique because it was at a botanic garden and three retailers partnered with Naturesweet for it: Dierbergs, Schnucks and Shop N Save.

NatureSweet began sponsoring its Homegrown Tomato Challenge in 2001. However, the company backed off the promotion in the last couple of years and came back this year with a refreshed event.

This year Naturesweet added an “Iron Chef”-style Glorys Tomatoes Chef’s Challenge, which is named for a NatureSweet product. Three home chefs were chosen from online entries to participate.

NatureSweet marketing director Michael Joergensen said his company is marketing a premium tomato and some of the consumers who really appreciate premium tomatoes are those who grown their own.

“There’s such a strong community of people that take tomatoes seriously. They grown their own tomatoes and take such pride in them,” he said.

NatureSweet staff members signed up home gardeners for the Homegrown Tomato Challenge and made sure no one who entered was a professional tomato grower. People entering and watching the event got to take home NatureSweet Charriots snack packs and other things.

NatureSweet employees tested all the entries with a refractometer and narrowed the field down to three top entries for the large tomato and small tomato categories. A panel of judges took it from there.

The panel of judges included the owner and executive chef of an upscale French restaurant in St. Louis, the executive editor of a St. Louis foodie magazine, an area radio reporter, a Missouri Botanical Garden representative and an editor for The Packer.

Grand-prize winners:

  • Gina Bangser of Chicago won the grand prize in the Glorys Tomatoes Chef’s Challenge with her roasted vegetable and quinoa salad with balsamic glazed shrimp;
  • Andrew Kocot of St. Louis won the grand prize in the small tomato category with his sun sugar tomatoes; and
  • Susan Linko of Harrison, Ohio, won the grand prize in the large tomato category with her cherokee purple tomatoes.

The two runners-up in each category took home a $250 gift card to one of the sponsoring retailers.

After the event, all remaining tomatoes, about 75 pounds, were donated to St. Louis Food Bank.