(May 9) In France, it is called the apple of love; in Germany, it is the apple of paradise; in parts of northern Europe, it was called the wolf peach. And even though it was thought to be poisonous for many years, this American native is now considered our favorite vegetable … or fruit.

The tomato originated in the wild as a cherry-sized berry in the Andes of South America. Tomatoes were cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas, but did not travel to Europe until Spanish explorers brought back seed in the 16th century. By the 19th century, tomatoes had gained widespread popularity, partially due to the energies of open-minded farmers like Thomas Jefferson.

THE OLD DEBATE

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Botanically speaking, a fruit is the edible part of the plant containing seeds, while veggies are the edible stems, leaves or roots. By this definition, the tomato is a fruit. But legally speaking the tomato is a vegetable in the U.S. The dictionary defines a vegetable as an edible plant that’s eaten with the main course of a meal. Following this definition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tomato is a vegetable in the 1893 case Nix vs. Hedden.

In 1999, Americans consumed the equivalent of 91 pounds of whole tomatoes per person. Tomato use has increased 30% during the past 20 years. But 81% of that consumption comes from processed tomato products like ketchup, pastes and other sauces.

Since whole tomatoes taste so great, contain so many nutrients and increase produce department sales, you should encourage your American consumers to go to the source: the fresh tomato.

Seven of 10 consumers purchase tomatoes for use in salad, and desire for healthful products is growing year-round, says Samantha Winters, director of marketing for the Florida Tomato Committee, Orlando. For that reason, cross-merchandising salad items with tomatoes can bring added sales. Also, consider how your customers use tomatoes when deciding which varieties to carry.

At Ahart’s Market in Allentown, Pa., one of five stores, the grape tomato has replaced the cherry tomato as most popular for use in salads, says Sam Lipot, produce supervisor. Recognize changing trends and shift to accommodate them.

“The grape tomatoes are what they use in salads right now. The cherry tomatoes don’t sell as well as the grape tomatoes. The grapes have increased in sales in the past few years,” Lipot says.

Lipot knows that customers often buy tomatoes for salads or Italian dishes, and he cross-merchandises accordingly. He displays tomatoes near basil, garlic, croutons and lettuce so that people can make one stop for salads or spaghetti sauce. Ahart’s normally sells about 25 25-pound cases of tomatoes each week priced at $1.29-1.39 per pound. When on sale for 79 cents a pound, sales increase to 125 cases a week, Lipot says.

Promotions are often the most effective way to increase tomato sales. At Gerrity’s Supermarket in Scranton, Pa, 9 stores, produce supervisor Rico Galassi has noticed an increase in grape tomato popularity, as well. He says the best way to get consumers to buy is with a low price and a big promotion.

Each year, Gerrity’s has a one-day meat sale — a customer appreciation day in which major price reductions are offered in the meat department. Every other department also takes advantage of the 20%to 30% increase in traffic to highlight and drop prices on a couple of products. This year, the produce department is featuring grape tomatoes, Galassi says. He says the store normally sells the tomatoes at $1.99 to $2.49 a pound and sells about one or two cases per day. On the sale day, the promotional price is 2 for $3, and Galassi expects to sell 70 to 75 cases. The store hopes only to break even on the sale day, to really give customers a great deal and make shopping exciting throughout the store, he says.

OTHER WAYS TO INCREASE SALES

Several factors can help increase tomato sales. For instance, the tomato should never be refrigerated, says Caroline Hughes, vice president of marketing for the California Tomato Commission, Fresno. She says the ideal temperature for tomato storage is 55-65 degrees, with 85% to 95% relative humidity.

“Temperatures below 50 degrees retard color and destroy tomato flavor and texture. If you must keep tomatoes in the cooler, wrap them in thermal blankets near the door to minimize chill damage,” Hughes says.

While you may know the dangers of refrigerating tomatoes, your customers may not. The California Tomato Commission, the Florida Tomato Committee and others supply point-of-purchase materials explaining the best ways to care for tomatoes, including temperature parameters.

The Florida Tomato Committee emphasizes a health message in a lot of its POP materials, Winters says. In a recent survey conducted by Prevention magazine and the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., 75% of respondents said they are buying more healthful foods to reduce risks of health problems. This number is up from 54% four years earlier.

“Florida tomatoes are equipped with the right tools — A, C, potassium, lycopene, P3 factor — for the industry to seize opportunities in health,” Winters says. The commission’s POP includes health-focused messages like “Florida Tomatoes … Enjoy One Today for a Healthier Tomorrow.”