PLANT CITY, Fla. — The growth of the tomato category at retail based on taste and variety has been called the 10th most important event that has shaped the produce industry during the past decade.

Ronnie De La Cruz, president of De La Cruz Training and Consulting Services, Salinas, Calif., rated that development in a presentation at the Riverview-based Southeast Produce Council’s fall conference on Nov. 6 Braselton, Ga.

“In some cases, the tomato category jumped over salads in terms of sales growth,” he said. “It forced some of those categories that the added space came out of, those other competing categories to realize they are competing against the entire produce department, not just other items in their category.”

That growth has numerous types of tomatoes, including romas, grapes, cherries, clusters, heirlooms, greenhouse, shade house, Camparis, amarosas, romanitas and a variety of colored tomatoes selling alongside and taking market share away from other tomatoes, said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

Retail variety oversupply

The retail tomato category, DiMare said, has segmented from three to four types to the 12 to 14 the average chain now carries.

“There are so many SKUs (stock-keeping units) of tomatoes,” DiMare said. “Someone is buying them, but it is taking away from all the other ones.”

Comparatively few mature greens, the large tomatoes that make for big slices for hamburgers and sandwiches, are sold in supermarkets.

Florida shippers send about 75% of their mature greens to repackers for distribution to foodservice purveyors.

It’s the reverse for grape tomatoes, which sell primarily in supermarkets. Roma tomatoes are sold half to retail and half to repackers, shippers say.

“The number of offerings within the tomato category has grown exponentially while overall tomato consumption has grown incrementally,” said Jon Esformes, chief marketing officer at Palmetto-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. “For us, that’s a concern, as there have been more and more offerings within the tomato category at retail. It has definitely affected consumption on some of the staple items.”

Consumption growth

With more consumers doing more cooking at home, Esformes said retailers have more opportunities to build consumer loyalty through aggressive merchandising.

Formerly a large mature green roma tomato grower-shipper, Pacific a couple of years ago relocated its Florida roma production to Mexico.

Esformes said the company felt the cost of growing romas in Florida was cost-prohibitive.

“We didn’t feel that it was a competitively priced produce or that we could no longer meet the high quality standards we require to put our brand on something,” he said.

Esformes said Pacific has been paying more attention to its customers’ demands and has adjusted its North American production accordingly.

East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. is selling more of its tomatoes to retail customers.
Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations, said the grower-shipper is trying to take a different approach to its sales.

“One is the way we are trying to reach out to the different chain stores in the areas so we can have a better relationship with them,” he said. “My parents, who own this family-run business, have allowed me to look at the local chain store business as more of a priority. That’s what we’re pushing for.” 

Foodservice opportunity

The savior for mature greens has been the quick-service restaurant sector in the foodservice category, DiMare said.

He said fast food restaurants account for up to 60% of mature greens demand.

“The institutional and higher-end restaurants are really suffering,” DiMare said. “People are cutting back. People are more apt to go to McDonald’s and Burger King than to T.G.I. Friday’s, Ruth’s Chris or Shula’s. They’re not going to these high-end restaurants as often as they would before.”

Foodservice sales haven’t taken a hit for Santa Sweets Inc., which sells grape tomatoes to national accounts such as Outback and Carrabba’s restaurants, said Michael Lacey, Santa Sweets’ director of sales.

Instead, sales have strengthened, he said.

“If we can give a quality product at a set price year-round, one that consumers can enjoy on a good salad, it becomes a winning situation,” Lacey said.

“People are buying at the retail market. They see the tomatoes when they visit restaurants. We had our tomatoes on one of the salads. Now the chain is using them on three menu items.”

Lacey said grape tomatoes also are selling well in retail produce departments.