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Retailers say variety helps move tomatoes year round

by Brian Gaylord | August 15, 2010
Andy Gustavson, produce manager for Ben Lomond Market in Ben Lomond, CA, and produce supervisor for sister store Scotts Valley Market, told The Produce News Aug. 3 that organic slicing tomatoes out of Baja California, Mexico, were selling well.

As of the week of Aug. 2, Ben Lomond Market had those organic slicing tomatoes on ad at 99 cents per pound. Tomatoes out of Baja California eat well, he said.

At this time of year, the store stocks its produce department with tomatoes from Southern California and Baja California, Mexico, as well from local grower Miyashita Nursery Inc. in nearby Watsonville. Miyashita Nursery provides heirloom, cluster and Momotaro tomatoes and delivers them to Ben Lomond Market the day they're picked.

"The shelf life extends for the shopper who takes it [a Miyashita Nursery tomato] home," he said.

Mr. Gustavson said that his customers want locally grown produce and that he accommodates that request as best he can. As a result of cooler-than-normal temperatures, growers in Santa Cruz County and surrounding areas aren’t turning out nearly as many tomatoes as last year.

Miyashita Nursery provides tomatoes that Ben Lomond Market shoppers want, and Mr. Gustavson said he recommends Momotaro tomatoes to inquiring customers.

When Mr. Gustavson spoke with The Produce News, he was selling Momotaros at a pricey $4.99 per pound. They’re popular, but Ben Lomond Market doesn’t receive enough volume from Miyashita Nursery to put them on ad. The store is supposed to receive its first-ever organic Momotaros, he said.

When customers seek guidance on buying tomatoes, Mr. Gustavson will ask how they’re going to use them.

“Each tomato [variety] has its own niche,” he said. “Each heirloom has its own little flavor thing going. Heirloom tomatoes are good as an hors d’oeuvre dish.”

Around the third week in July, Ben Lomond Market began receiving California hand-picked cherry tomatoes in open pint containers. Those tomatoes range from $32 to $38 per flat, which is at least $10 per case higher than he’s used to paying, Mr. Gustavson said.

Ben Lomond Market should have good tomato sales throughout the summer, Mr. Gustavson said. “We should be able to push all California Romas, cherry tomatoes and slicing tomatoes coming out of San Diego,” he said. “We put them on ad hot and heavy.”

Romanita tomatoes out Mexico are coming into Ben Lomond Market and selling briskly, Mr. Gustavson said. Romanita tomatoes are referred to as “baby Romas” but typically are sweeter than Romas.

Grape tomatoes have been a strong seller this year, and when in stock Ben Lomond Market “goes through 50 pounds a week,” Mr. Gustavson said. For all the tomato varieties at Ben Lomond Market, the store “duplicates that in organics,” he said. Some of the store’s shoppers are looking for organic product, and others buy on price, he said.

Ben Lomond Market will put all its fresh produce items on ad at least once a year. “If there’s no tomatoes on ad, it spreads its [tomato sales] around,” Mr. Gustavson said.

Ben Lomond Market no longer receives many tomatoes from Florida when they’re in season. “Mexico has gotten sophisticated and can beat the socks off Florida on price,” Mr. Gustavson said.

Star Market in Salinas, CA, is a mid-sized, independent, family-owned store. It gets a good portion of its tomatoes from West Sacramento, CA-based Nor- Cal Produce Inc.

Like Ben Lomond Market, this store gets heirloom, cluster and Momotaro tomatoes from Miyashita Nursery Inc. in nearby Watsonville. Miyashita Nursery delivers them to Star Market the day they’re picked, twice a week. Star Market produce clerk Gil Sigala told The Produce News Aug. 4 that the store has hothouse tomatoes that “come from down south” delivered to it by Nor-Cal Produce.

As with Ben Lomond Market, Star Market’s customers ask for the pricey Momotaro tomatoes, Mr. Sigala said.

Star Market does a healthy business in Roma tomatoes that it receives from Nor-Cal Produce. Star Market puts it variety of tomatoes on ad “now and then,” Mr. Sigala said.

“We sell more [tomatoes] in the summer,” he added, noting that barbecuing contributes to the boost in tomato sales.

A new tomato item for Star Market is “Nature Sweet Cherubs” brand tomatoes, which are produced by San Antonio, TX-based Desert Glory Ltd. The item is “like a cherry tomato,” Mr. Sigala said. The store sells them for $3.99 per basket.

Star Market had organic grape tomatoes for $2.49 per pack in early August. Sugar plum grape tomatoes out of Baja California were selling for $3.99 per one-pound pack.

Star Market also carries Romanita tomatoes out of Baja California. They were selling for $3.99 for a bag of about 20 tomatoes.

(For more on California/Baja tomatoes, see the Aug. 23, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)