RUSKIN, Fla. — Foodservice buyers retain strong appetites for Florida tomatoes.

Packers ship about 75% of the state’s mature-greens to repackers, which distribute to foodservice and retail customers. Packers sell the balance to jobbers and directly to supermarket chains.

Restaurants continue to crave Florida tomatoes“Foodservice continues to be a boost for our industry,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

“Demand there has been steady and able to hold its own because of the different types of tomatoes that have been introduced. I don’t see the Subways and Burger Kings of the world reducing their usage. Their growth in overall stores has been continuing to climb.”

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said the foodservice sector does well with Florida tomatoes.

“Foodservice is the most prolific and a growing market that has been available in the last year or two,” he said.

“We have had growth there — this while repacker and chain store consumption has remained fairly stable.”

Superstores also increased their tomato purchases, Weisinger said.

On foodservice, buyers increasingly look for per-tomato specifications and want to purchase specific-sized tomatoes such as ones that bring six slices per tomato, Weisinger said.  

Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for Lipman, Immokalee, agrees that foodservice remains a strong mature-greens buyer while grape and cherry tomatoes experience strong retail sales.

“At this point, there is a lot of protected agriculture involved in the retail category,” Odell said.

“There’s a lot of hothouse and shade house tomatoes on the retail shelves. Tomatoes on the vine have been big for the last five years. The snacking-type tomatoes, the cherries and grapes, have seen strong growth as well.”

Like mature-greens, packers send a majority of roma tomatoes to repackers though some ship directly to retail customers, said Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato Inc.

Spencer said retailers do a good job in merchandising tomatoes.

“It’s a constant issue that we deal with, trying to figure out ways to create more consumer demand for our product,” Spencer said.

“As an industry, we should probably try to draft something unique to signal the beginning of the season. We have to figure a way to bring tomatoes to consumers in a unique way.”

Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, said he marvels at how much markup retailers apply to tomatoes.

“A $12 box of tomatoes today would be 50 cents a pound,” he said.

“But in stores, they sell for $3 a pound. The repackers and growers aren’t getting that money. In my opinion, the consumer is just getting charged too much.”

Even when grower-shippers sell product, such as grape tomatoes, direct to retailers, the retailers want prices two to three weeks in advance and also triple their price, Madonia said.

Michael Lacey, director of sales and marketing for Wimauma-based Red Diamond Farms, a division of Tomato Thyme Corp., said Florida supermarkets remain focused on the state’s Fresh from Florida promotions logo.

“It has been a big deal for them to have tomatoes from Florida,” he said.

“In our meetings with Publix, their big deal is to support what’s going on in Florida. Not just tomatoes, but also all Florida products. It affects what goes up North. People know Florida has a good piece of fruit. Retailers are on-board supporting Florida agriculture.”

Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., said grape tomatoes thrive at retail.

“Grape tomatoes seem to be getting more popular every year,” he said.

“The grape seems to be one of the most popular tomatoes used for certain commodities and it looks to be one of the most steady items. It’s not the same volume as mature-greens, but more of the grapes are being consumed.”