(Feb. 16) Imagine serving your guests the tastiest, best-quality tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers ever grown. Now imagine serving them in your restaurant every day of the year.

That’s what greenhouse growers claim they can help you do. They say greenhouse vegetables are better because they are grown under tightly controlled conditions.

Growing vegetables in glass houses allows growers to control the air the plants breathe and regularly adjust with a computer the food they eat to ensure the best-looking, best-tasting product available. Operators pump a calculated mixture of nitrogen and oxygen through the facilities and feed the plants specially blended nutrients through drip irrigation.

Greenhouse vegetables are hydroponically grown, which means they never touch soil. The vegetables grow in mediums like rock wool that eliminate soil-borne pests or pathogens that can interfere with the growth process.

Greenhouses originated in the Netherlands. On this side of the Atlantic, Canada is best known for its greenhouses, but growers in Mexico rapidly are expanding their greenhouse acreage, and the U.S. houses a handful of greenhouses.

Definitions of greenhouse vs. hothouse vary, but technically, a greenhouse is a glass facility that has heating and, many times, cooling systems and in which produce is grown in a soil-free medium, says Richard Kusian, director of sales and marketing at Nature’s Way Farms, a grower-shipper of greenhouse products based in Nogales, Ariz. A hothouse is a similar structure that does not have heating or cooling systems and where product grows in soil.

TOMATOES NO. 1

Tomatoes are the most common greenhouse vegetables, followed by cucumbers and bell peppers. Some growers offer limited amounts of other commodities, notably herbs, eggplant, strawberries and melons, but the delicate characteristics of tomatoes, cukes and peppers allow them to gain the most from indoor growing.

Albert Hall, executive chef at The Grill at Hacienda del Sol in Tucson, Ariz., is so convinced of the benefits of greenhouse growing that he has his own greenhouse at home. He grows figs, kumquats and meyer lemons and takes the lemons to the restaurant when he has an abundance of them.

When it comes to commercially grown greenhouse product, he uses U.S.-grown red beefsteak tomatoes, golden tomatoes and heirloom varieties like brandywine, scarlet and tiger stripe. He sources red, gold, crimson and white bell peppers from Holland. And he knows of a couple of farmers in California who grow delicate greens like baby arugula, chicory, baby lollo rosso, dandelion greens and lettuce in greenhouses.

Hall likes the appearance of greenhouse product, which he says can have a longer shelf life and seems to be hardier than field product. He uses as much greenhouse product as he can get — up to 40% of his produce.

“It helps maintain our reputation for quality,” he says.

Howard Snitzer, who has served as executive chef at several fine restaurants, has prepared samples of greenhouse product at the Eurofresh Farms Inc. exhibit at the Produce Marketing Association convention for the past six years. The Willcox, Ariz.-based greenhouse grower produces some varieties that are perfect for restaurant use, he says.

“I especially love the smaller yellow and orange tomatoes, not only for their superior flavor, but also because they present beautifully,” he says.

Snitzer uses yellow, orange and other kinds of tomatoes to make salad caprice — a tomato slice or slices topped with buffalo mozzarella or fresh mozzarella, balsamic glaze and a chiffonade dressing with fresh basil.

“The yellow and orange tomatoes stand out even if used by themselves with just the balsamic glaze, and they have a wonderful flavor,” he says.

Hall of The Grill oven roasts up to three cases a day of greenhouse-grown whole plum tomatoes that he uses as ingredients in his signature plum tomato soup and other offerings. He says there is a huge flavor difference between those and field tomatoes.
“I need a tomato that is a tomato, not an unreasonable facsimile,” he says.

He also favors Holland gold bell peppers, which he stuffs raw with blends of various cheeses. “It’s a great presentation,” he says.

Because of their near-perfect appearance, tomatoes-on-the-vine, colored bell peppers and other greenhouse items often are used for decorations on tables, in displays such as cornucopias or in combination with or in place of flowers, says Fried De Schouwer, director of sales and marketing for Eurofresh. “A lot of people find them intriguing,” he says.

BEHIND THE SCENE

To be sure, the foodservice category has not been a hotbed of activity for greenhouse commodities. High prices and limited availability are a few of the reasons.

Tim Soufan, vice president of product development and executive chef for Denny’s Corp., Spartanburg, S.C., a chain of 1,700 restaurants, says he does not request greenhouse produce from his suppliers because of the price and because of lack of consumer requests.

He perceives greenhouse product to be cleaner and better-looking than field-grown, but there’s a cost associated with that. Besides, if the tomato is diced, it doesn’t matter that it is prettier, he says.

Even though greenhouse tomatoes may cost 25% more than their field-grown counterparts, many middle- to upper-end restaurants gravitate toward them for their flavor, consistency and overall quality, says Michael Bechtel, general manager at Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers in Leamington, Ontario, Canada’s largest greenhouse growing area.

Kusian of Nature’s Way says that, because there is less shrink with greenhouse product, a chef actually may not be paying much more per pound considering that he may have to discard as much as one-third of a box of field-grown product.

More greenhouse grower-shippers seem to be aware of the value of foodservice accounts as destinations for their product.

BC Hot House Foods Inc., Surrey, British Columbia, is coming out with six- and 12-packs of long English cucumbers especially for foodservice this spring. The grower-owned organization also plans to launch minicucumbers, says Dawn Gray, vice president of marketing. And the organization puts out an 11-pound package of bulk sweet bell peppers for foodservice and a 3-pound pack of mixed sweet baby bells.

BC Hot House also grows several varieties of tomatoes, including beefsteak, tomatoes on the vine, specialties like cherry tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes, campari (a sweet, cocktail-type tomato), romas on the vine, miniplum, yellow and orange tomatoes. Several kinds of heirloom tomatoes also will be added in the spring.

“I think, in the past, foodservice has been afraid to use (greenhouse) tomatoes because they felt there were insufficient supplies,” Kusian says. But, with the addition of new growing areas, especially in Mexico, greenhouse tomatoes are more readily available to keep your guests happy year-round.