(July 6) PALMETTO, Fla. — Improvements made to a repacking operation will help Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. send more Sunripe-branded tomatoes to supermarket shelves and restaurant tables.

Pacific Tomato has bought ownership of a Mulberry tomato repacking operation it had co-owned with NationFresh, Springfield, Mo.

Pacific Tomato and its sister company, Pacific Triple E Produce Corp., Tracy, Calif., and 10 other wholesaler-repackers in 2003 formed the NationFresh tomato marketer.
The Mulberry operation — called Sunripe Pre-Pak LLC — was consummated in May.

Pacific Tomato has been making improvements to the facility, south of Lakeland that in late June earned a superior rating from Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif., said Bob Spence, Pacific Tomato’s vice president of business development.

“There has been a real revival of retailers interested in direct programs, particularly with romas due to the Hispanic population,” Spence said. “It’s really an exciting time to be in tomatoes. It’s such a large and important category for retailers, a profitable one that’s shown significant growth over the years. They’re demanding more retail-ready products.”

Sunripe Pre-Pak operates out of a building that used to pack watermelons for Pacific Heartland Ltd., Lakeland, a former sister company that Pacific Tomato closed in 2004.

While focusing on tomatoes, Sunripe Pre-Pak also will pack other vegetables such as bell peppers, cucumbers and squash sold under the Sunripe banner in different and special-sized packs, Spence said.

Sunripe products are packed and marketed by Pacific Tomato, Pacific Triple E, Sunripe Pre-Pak, Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, and Kaliroy Pacific, Nogales, Ariz.

The Mulberry repacking operation allows for packing of a variety of tomato packs, cartons, sizes and configurations, Spence said.

The grower-shipper also plans to sell more tomatoes to foodservice.

“I don’t think we’ve fully tapped into the foodservice side, the hotels and motels and Syscos,” said Victor Uribe, Pacific Tomato’s grape tomato production and Wimauma packinghouse manager. “That’s still an open market that we can get into.”

Though 80% of Pacific Tomato’s tomatoes are shipped bulk to repackers, Pacific Tomato has been packing limited retail special packs such as 4-count clamshell packs of round tomatoes and 6- and 8-count clamshells of romas.

Sondria Reynolds, marketing manager, said Pacific Tomato wants to send more of its products into supermarkets.

“We’re aiming to get more into the retail side of the business,” she said. “Though we will always have the bulk product because you have to, we’re trying to push that retail issue more and provide more end-user product.”