Barry Zwillinger of Legends Produce is growing heirloom tomatoes for local distribution from a downtown Phoenix greenhouse.
Barry Zwillinger of Legends Produce is growing heirloom tomatoes for local distribution from a downtown Phoenix greenhouse.

A retrofitted greenhouse in downtown Phoenix is supplying Arizona chefs and retailers with just-picked heirloom tomatoes under its new Four Peaks brand.

In early December, partner Barry Zwillinger sold his wholesale distribution center, Legend Distributing, to Immokalee, Fla.-based Lipman Produce, to focus on the new venture.

He still owns Legend Produce, a major melon supplier and tomato repacker.

As he bought and packed tomatoes for foodservice over the years, Zwillinger watched the rise of heirloom varieties in strange new shapes and colors, and the growing interest in fresh local produce.

The Four Peaks project began when he met a Dutch greenhouse grower ready to give up his long-time plant business. Zwillinger offered to finance the transition to a tomato greenhouse, and the pair travelled to Holland and Israel to buy seeds and the latest, most energy-efficient equipment.

From a test plot of 14,000 square feet, where they tested more than 20 varieties, the pair now grows five to eight of the most flavorful varieties in 120,000 square feet in downtown Phoenix.

Zwillinger is committed to growing varieties with a minimum brix of 7% to ensure they’re super sweet.

“When you grab the same type of tomato from Mexico, California or Florida, most are at 2% to 4% brix,” he said.

The pair plans to increase production to 200,000 square feet by mid-February and continue year-round by overlapping with a second 80,000 square-foot greenhouse in Safford, two hours from Phoenix at a higher elevation.

Both greenhouses should be in production during the heaviest months of February, March and April, he said.

“The exciting part is being able to offer chefs a ripe heirloom tomato grown a mile or two from their restaurant,” said Zwillinger, who also delivers Four Peaks tomatoes directly to a few stores in the Costco, Whole Foods, Fry’s and Safeway chains, among others.

“We’ll start picking at 6 a.m. and be done by 9,” he said. “The fruit gets into my distribution center by 2 p.m., I pack it by 8 that night and I’m delivering to the stores at 6 the next morning.

“In some cases, we’re picking tomatoes in the morning and delivering them that afternoon.”

By providing a better-eating tomato and adding an Arizona Grown sticker, which the state is promoting heavily, Zwillinger said he can barely keep his labor-intensive tomatoes on Costco shelves.

His most popular pack is the 2-pound Treasure Chest clamshell introduced at this year’s Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit, filled with different shapes from a thumb-size grape tomato to a 3-inch tomato in colors from brown to purple.