(July 25, 1:43 p.m.) Some seed companies are skipping the middleman — the grower, in this case — pitching and selling their fruit and vegetable seeds directly to foodservice organizations.

For example, Nunhems Netherlands BV, a Nunhem, Netherlands-based seed company with U.S. headquarters in Parma, Idaho, sells and markets its new Intense roma tomato directly to restaurants. Jeff Boettge, crop sales manager for the tomato division of Nunhems Americas, said the new variety offers less drip and more flavor than a regular roma tomato.

“Our audience is bigger than just growers,” Boettge said. “To a grower, it may not make any difference if a tomato has gel. He’s more interested in yield.”

The fruit is denser than a regular roma tomato, and does not have as much of the gel that usually drips when a tomato is sliced.

Intense honors

The Intense roma tomato is scheduled to receive honors in the Produce Marketing Association’s 2008 Foodservice Produce Innovation Contest.

Results of the contest are scheduled to be announced at PMA’s July 25-27 Foodservice Conference and Exposition during the July 26 opening session, said Rebecca Catlett, a marketing and communications representative for Nunhems.

The Intense tomato is expected to be recognized in the buyer’s choice category, which is judged by foodservice buyers, operators and distributors.

The Intense tomato earned itself a free space in the new products showcase at PMA’s Fresh Summit 2008 in Orlando, Fla., planned for Oct. 24-27, as well as an engraved plaque. PMA members usually pay $545, and nonmembers $1,050, in addition to their exhibitor fees to be featured in the new products showcase.

The fruit also won the 2008 Fruit Logistica Innovation Award at the 2008 event Feb. 7-9 in Berlin. The tomato’s U.S. premiere was at the United Fresh Produce Association convention May 4-7 in Las Vegas.

The Produce Exchange, Livermore, Calif., is the exclusive marketer of the tomato in the U.S. for the retail market and will be exhibiting it on the expo floor.

Boettge said Nunhems is working with several foodservice companies directly to supply the foodservice market. The Produce Exchange is one of the growers Nunhems works with for the restaurant segment.

“We have a great relationship with Nunhems because they provide us with a great seed, and we provide them information about shelf life, flavor profiles and market feedback,” said Doug Wyrick, director of manager for The Produce Exchange.

The tomato’s shelf life is comparable to a regular roma.

“We’re really excited about this tomato, particularly in foodservice, because it slices so well and cooks down really nicely,” Wyrick said.

Plans for expanded acreage

The Produce Exchange has the fruit in the ground in Baja California, Mexico, and plans to expand acreage for its winter and fall programs. The company grows in mainland Mexico during the winter, and is working toward year-round production of the tomato.

“We want to reach out to the foodservice market more, and this is the perfect opportunity to come out with something that’s bigger and better,” Wyrick said. “We’ll gauge interest and then build our program around that.”

Wyrick said The Produce Exchange’s booth will feature the roma tomato, as well as an even newer variety, a pink cherry tomato that’s still in development. That tomato is a product of Sakata Seed USA, Morgan Hill, Calif.

“The flavor is unique, and everybody’s looking for a unique and high-taste tomato,” said Yasu Hasegawa, key account manager and liaison between the Japanese headquarters and U.S. Sakata offices.

Gearing toward salads

Hasegawa said that, while both the skin and the meat of the fruit are pink, it might be hard to tell the difference unless the pink tomato is right next to a red tomato. He said the pink tomato sells very well in Japan. The PMA Foodservice conference is its U.S. debut.

Sakata Seed offers the pink tomato seed in a few varieties. The Produce Exchange is marketing the tomato in a size that’s slightly larger than a grape tomato, at 20-25 grams. It is being marketed as a fresh tomato, especially for salads, Hasegawa said, although it’s not an easy grape tomato to eat in one bite.

“It’s not easy to get fruit small, so in the future we may have a smaller size of pink tomato, but not now,” Hasegawa said.

Alf Christiansen Seed Co., Mount Vernon, Wash., is focusing on smaller grape-type tomatoes that fit what they see as a popular nice category, especially for restaurant use.

“Oval, or grape-shaped tomatoes are really taking over the market from cherry tomatoes,” said Difang Chen, vice president of sales for Alf Christiansen. “They have less juice, so when you bite it the juice doesn’t shoot across the table.”

Mojo rising?

Chen said the company offers seeds to produce three grape tomatoes, a red tomato called Sweet Mojo, a yellow tomato called Solid Gold and a pink tomato called Pinkie.

The company doesn’t market directly to foodservice companies yet but works through growers to develop varieties for the foodservice industry. The company’s growers in Mexico are testing future varieties in greenhouses there.

“I think a lot of greenhouse growers cater to the foodservice business,” Chen said. “I see, even in fast food they’re starting to include the grape tomato and more produce in there.”

Jim Brown, horticulturist for Crop King Inc., Wadsworth, Ohio, said the growers his hydroponic supply company provides for are looking for more heirloom tomatoes to meet the needs of the foodservice market.

“Growers are asking for heirlooms, like brandywines, because they have a lot of flavor and the flavor is often very characteristic,” Brown said. “They can serve it in a restaurant, and it might look a little different, and it might taste a lot different, so it gives the restaurant a distinct flavor.”

Crop King gets most of its seeds for hydroponic greenhouses from DeRuiter Seeds Inc., Cleveland.

Brown agreed that growers are also asking for more cherry and grape tomatoes, both for foodservice and retail markets.

Getting fruit smaller, or changing it in any way, is all a matter of breeding. In the case of tomatoes at Sakata, that breeding can take 10 years or more.

“We can grow tomatoes one to two times a year, so it takes time to get pollen from the father plant for the next seed, so we have to focus for 10 years later,” Hasegawa said.

Long-term project

Boettge said the Intense tomato variety has been in the works for 18 years. Nunhems came upon the variety by chance, he said, when the company’s tomato breeder, Franco Vecchio, was trying to breed tomatoes for more firmness.

“At that time, he ran with the idea of having a real firm tomato, so he began breeding the recessive no-gel gene and began crossing it into his greenhouse varieties,” Boettge said. “He created a line of no-gel tomatoes adapted to the Mediterranean region of Europe.

Nunhems then began testing in Mexico and has since identified varieties that are adaptive to protective cropping year-round in most of the major growing regions in Mexico, Boettge said.

Color uniformity adds value

Nunhems hopes to create a category segment in tomatoes with the Intense variety because the fruit lacks many of the traits that cause problems in foodservice tomatoes.

“Lack of internal color can be a real problem with a foodservice tomato,” Boettge said. “But the Intense tomato ripens basically uniformly from the inside out, so it has a very uniform color from the skin to the core.”

He said that the tomato’s no-gel properties make 98% of the fruit usable.

“We have a two-focused approach,” Boettge said. “We think it has value for the consumer who’s looking for a real slicing tomato, but also great as a foodservice variety.”

Nunhems markets and sells the tomato through growers, like The Produce Exchange, but also sells it directly to packers and foodservice companies. Nunhems delivers the seeds to the foodservice organization, and the organization delivers them to its growers.

“It’s not really a grower variety of tomato,” Boettge said. “The value of the trait is in the slicing, the lack of waste and the product’s shelf life.”

Nunhems provides foodservice organizations with information and suggestions about growing regions and growers to use, as well as growing specifics, such as the proper sowing date, harvest time and water and temperature needs.

Larger round tomato in the works

Meanwhile, Nunhems is working on adapting the tomato to be even more foodservice friendly.

“We have a line of roma tomatoes in which the gene is present, and we’re currently working on breeding them with a larger round tomato,” Boettge said.

Information will always go back and forth, Boettge said, about what properties and traits to breed in future fruits and vegetables.

“Marketing and sales gives us feedback, we give the breeder information and the breeder breeds for future market needs, as well as does his own thing,” Boettge said. “Sometimes he comes to us with an idea and we say, ‘what can we do with this?’”

Designer seeds allow foodservice a bigger say
A pink cherry tomato marketed by The Produce Exchange is expected to make its U.S. debut at the PMA Foodservice on July 25-27.