By Samantha Winters

Although Florida’s 2004 spring tomato season ended on a high note of good pricing and demand, the fall and winter seasons were completely erratic. After enduring the wrath of several hurricanes, the winter tomato industry faced not only a sudden large supply of tomatoes, but irregular demand and pricing.

In an attempt to impact tomato sales quickly, the Florida Tomato Committee approached consumers directly with the message that excellent quality tomatoes were amply available and that tomatoes are such an important part of a healthy diet.

The FTC, at the direction of its marketing subcommittee and with tomatoes and transportation donated by  tomato growers and shippers, crafted a 1-million-pound tomato truck tour that delivered tomatoes to food banks in 18 cities along the East Coast. To help sell the story, the FTC developed a video news release that showed a local tomato delivery to a Miami food bank and featured interviews with tomato growers Freddie Strano and Kern Carpenter in the tomato fields of Homestead.

To enhance exposure, the FTC engaged local food banks that would be receiving tomato donations to help secure print and video news release coverage. Coverage included 220 airings on 182 stations in 114 markets (including New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Atlanta) reaching about 5.5 million viewers. What’s more, the video news release was picked up in national syndication and aired nine times nationally for an overall estimated audience of 50 million viewers.

In addition to the video news release and tomato-truck campaign, the FTC arranged a national consumer print advertising campaign that ran in the USA Today. The ads carried the headlines, “Mother Nature’s Multiple Vitamin,” “Bag Some Lycopene Today,” “What Hamburgers Dream Of” and “What Salads Crave.” One of the print ads even ran during Super Bowl weekend, giving the paper an extra audience boost. Ultimately, the ads reached 22 million readers with Florida tomatoes’ message of availability, quality, versatility and, most importantly, health.

This past season also found the FTC releasing its latest resource, “Building Profits and Profitable Menus with Florida Tomatoes: A guide for key retail and culinary professionals,” which found a grateful audience in the trade. The booklet covers the health benefits of tomatoes, handling and best practices, consumer research, tomato recipes and  tomato production.

Some retail produce buyers requested it for their produce managers, recognizing that these important people are valuable resources to the customer. Foodservice has also embraced the booklet, which features handling information, special ordering procurement instructions and worksheet for foodservice operators, as well as menu ideas/recipes and trends.

For tomatoes, for instance, U.S. restaurants have experienced a 9 percent increase in sandwich orders over the last year — and tomatoes are the No. 1 vegetable associated with sandwiches on the menu. There are many wonderful opportunities to expand tomatoes on the menu and this booklet helps enhance the profit-building potential for the operator.

The new guide was a key element of a new tomato handling and merchandising seminar for retail and foodservice introduced this season by the FTC. The committee teamed with Catalytic Generators, out of Norfolk, Va., to conduct seminars in Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., geared toward improving tomato quality and maximizing tomato movement. Plans call for the seminars to be a part of FTC’s permanent marketing program, bringing the workshops to other areas of the region.

Tools to enhance tomato sales also included new point of purchase materials introduced this season. The FTC provided retailers with eye-catching promotional posters and shelf cards designed to deliver Florida tomatoes’ message of health and versatility. Communicating the health message is important as referenced by The Packer’s 2004 Fresh Trends Study that showed 16 percent of the people polled adding more tomatoes to their diets after learning about the health benefits of tomatoes. Further, FTC’s consumer research showed shoppers 75 percent more likely to purchase tomatoes after becoming aware of the health benefits.

In addition to health, tomatoes’ message of versatility is a winner for the retailer and his customer. When the shopper chooses a field-grown tomato the limits are boundless — that tomato can be used in a salad, sandwich, soup, sauce, stir-together and so on. What this means to the retailer is the increased potential of ringing other produce items along with that tomato sale for an overall higher profit margin. Thanks to the versatility of field-grown tomatoes, the shopper is offered an array of menu solutions that is healthy to boot. By creatively displaying tomatoes, leveraging the health message, and regularly promoting and cross-promoting tomatoes with companion items, Florida tomatoes ring in big profits at retail.

Samantha Winters is the director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee, (407) 660-1949.