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Flavor Phenomenon


Tomatoes are tops in fresh produce. Second only to potatoes as the most frequently purchased fresh vegetables, the fruit is a versatile, nutrient-packed staple in the vast majority of U.S. households.

According to the Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts Q1 2015, 81 percent of U.S. households purchased tomatoes for the 13 weeks ending March 28, 2015. This percentage is consistent with tomato purchases for all of 2014.

Per capita consumption of tomatoes has been on the rise for the past few decades. A number of factors have contributed to this increase, including heightened awareness regarding their health benefits. For instance, tomatoes contain all four carotenoids, including lycopene, which is thought to be one of the most powerful antioxidants.

While new varieties and product introductions, from grape tomatoes to heirlooms, have also sparked consumption, many in the tomato business believe that flavor has had the most significant impact on sales.

“There was a time when the taste of tomatoes wasn’t really a factor; price, appearance and shelf life were the only relevant factors. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” says Paul Lightfoot, CEO of New York-based greenhouse farm operator BrightFarms. “Fortunately, that has changed in recent years.”

Frank Paone, director of marketing for the full-service produce and floral supplier Procacci Brothers, in Philadelphia, agrees. “Today, people want tomatoes that taste like they came from the backyard,” he asserts. “If a tomato isn’t really great, then it’s really awful to the consumer. Tomato lovers are a fanatic breed.”

The key to flavorful tomatoes, according to Paone, is vine ripening, which Procacci does, including with its proprietary Uglyripe Heirloom Tomato and Santa Sweets grape tomatoes. The company is responsible for around 20 percent of the nation’s fresh tomato supply.

As flavor flourishes in this category, value-added products and innovative packaging are further spurring tomato sales.

“Packaging in the produce aisle is less of a formality and more of an opportunity than it ever has been,” affirms Paone. “You can sell more produce with packaging that pops off the shelf and helps retailers with merchandising. We’re also seeing a lot more value-added packaging that tells a story.”

Procacci is looking to roll out new packaging later this year, which Paone says will tie into marketing, as well as an improved digital and social media presence.

Different colors, shapes and sizes are also trending in tomatoes, observes Paone, who adds that while Procacci continuously works with R&D to discover different seeds, no matter what’s in fashion, flavor comes first. “Flavor is always the primary area of discussion,” he says.

With more varieties on the market, Procacci has worked to identify creative culinary uses for different tomatoes, and share those ideas with home chefs.

“Consumers increasingly are identifying certain tomatoes with certain uses,” notes Paone. “We’re continually trying to become a resource for new and innovative ways to use tomatoes.” With that in mind, Procacci has joined forces with a local chef to produce tomato-inspired culinary videos that live on the Santa Sweets website.

Greenhouse Grown

Hand in hand with flavor, “greenhouse grown” is changing the tomato landscape.

According to the Food & Agribusiness Research Advisory (FAR), from the Dutch multinational Rabobank, limited resources of land, water and labor have encouraged growth in the U.S. greenhouse industry over the past decade. Sales of greenhouse-grown produce in this country are estimated to reach more than $4 billion by 2020.

The report, “The Growing U.S. Greenhouse Produce Niche — Capitalizing on High Tech Quality and Consistency,” authored by FAR Senior Analyst, Produce Karen Halliburton Barber, notes that while greenhouse produce represents approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable production, greenhouse tomatoes account for as much as 70 percent of sales.

BrightFarms, which finances, designs, builds and runs greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets through long-term, fixed-price partnerships, is on a quest to bring commercial-scale local agriculture to market.

Among the company’s latest projects was breaking ground on a 160,000-square-foot greenhouse farm in Rochelle, Ill., for Milwaukee, Wis.-based Roundy’s Supermarkets. Slated for completion in early 2016, the farm is expected to produce more than 1 million pounds of fresh produce annually.

In addition, a 120,000-square-foot greenhouse farm for the Giant Food banner of Ahold USA is under construction for the Washington, D.C., market, and will open this fall. Both greenhouse farms will grow tomatoes on the vine, grape tomatoes and Beefsteak tomatoes. For the most flavorful tomatoes possible, BrightFarms will harvest them only when red and ripe.

“It’s the biggest factor in tomato flavor,” asserts Lightfoot. “The tomatoes will be on store shelves within 24 hours. We don’t design our facilities with storage. We deliver better, more nutritious produce, faster and with less shrink.”

Transporting tomatoes over shorter distances to its supermarket partners also means a reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

“We only do projects where there’s a long supply chain,” adds Lightfoot of the BrightFarms’ greenhouses, which are located just outside heavily populated metro areas. “We’re replacing several thousand miles with dozens of miles.”

In both the Roundy’s/Mariano’s stores and Giant Food stores, BrightFarms expects to be merchandised in a local section of the produce department. “We’re looking to provide a unique sensory experience,” notes Lightfoot, who adds that the company will reveal more greenhouse projects before the end of the year.

Regarding the flavor revolution in tomatoes, Lightfoot credits San Antonio, Texas-based NatureSweet, with starting the trend when the company introduced its greenhouse-grown Cherubs, now the No. 1-selling grape tomato in America.

Today, the company is once again changing the way consumers enjoy greenhouse-grown tomatoes with NatureSweet Jubilees, which “deliver something consumers have wanted forever — a sandwich tomato with great flavor and no waste,” says VP of Marketing Michael Joergensen. The company also recently launched the NatureSweet Constellation, a medley pack offering tomatoes for every culinary occasion.

In terms of trends, Joergensen sees small tomatoes continuing to rise in popularity. “Flavor, freshness and ease of use are key factors driving the small-tomato trend,” he observes. “Both the grape and cherry tomato varieties are experiencing more aggressive sales growth, with grape leading the way.”

Northern Exposure

The Canadian province of Ontario is leading the way in greenhouse-grown vegetables, including tomatoes. According to the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, the province boasts 2,067 acres devoted to tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Each of those acres can produce 10 times the amount of vegetables than that of conventionally grown commodities.

Last April, NatureFresh Farms, of Leamington, Ontario, brought its greenhouse-farming expertise to the United States, breaking ground on a 180-acre project in Delta, Ohio. “We expect to be picking our first tomato crop in late January 2016 to ship fresh, locally grown Ohio tomatoes to our customers throughout the Midwest,” says Chris Veillon, NatureFresh director of marketing.

This summer, NatureFresh was immersed in consumer education through its Greenhouse Education Center (GEC) and #GreenInTheCity tour, which took place on both sides of the border and included sampling fresh product.

“The GEC gives the consumer a firsthand, up-close and personal experience with greenhouse vegetables,” explains Veillon. “They get to not only see real vegetables growing, but also learn how we grow with a non-soil-based growing medium, how we use a pressurized irrigation system to feed the plants, and … why we use energy screens to protect the plants and their environment.”

Sunset/Mastronardi, of Kingsville, Ontario, is also leading greenhouse-grown tomato trends with its most recent packaging innovation, Top seal. “This packaging option reduces materials by at least 20 percent while providing an attractive and efficient packaging solution for families of any size,” says Sunset’s Daniela Ferro. “This allows for increased product visibility, and it allows us to fit more clamshells per pallet and per truck, which helps contribute to our green initiatives.”

Sunset sees organic tomatoes and snack-size tomatoes continuing to rise in popularity. In the snack size, the company offers such items as Angel Sweet, Zima, Wild Wonders and One Sweet.

“Today, people want tomatoes that taste like they came from the backyard.”
—Frank Paone, Procacci Brothers

“We only do projects where there’s a long supply chain. We’re replacing several thousand miles with dozens of miles.”
—Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms

“Flavor, freshness and ease of use are key factors driving the small-tomato trend.”
—Michael Joergensen, NatureSweet

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