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IN THE TRENCHES: What’s next to help expand the tomato category?

by Ron Pelger | September 22, 2011

The tomato category has been growing ever since the Incas first cultivated them back in 700 A.D. Today, tomatoes are a major sales contributor to the supermarket produce department.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that tomatoes began to show some new spark. By the mid-1990s, tomato varieties were continuing to help expand the category by reaching new sales-volume heights.

As tomatoes experienced steady growth, new varieties were constantly being offered and placed on the market to retailers. Diverse packaging also helped boost tomato sales immensely.

In the past, supermarkets handled very few tomato choices in bulk and packages. The bulk tomatoes were primarily pinkish-green, hard and flavorless.

The packaged option consisted of three or four small tomatoes in a long, narrow carton. These were commonly known as “tube tomatoes.”

Eventually, customers were offered a larger pack of six tomatoes in a flat pulp tray that some markets called “flat packs.”

Then some retailers began to experiment with different types packages to increase sales. One such unit was created in the produce back room and consisted of nine small tomatoes in a flat tray, six on the bottom and three placed on top forming a pyramid shape. This was termed as either the “pyramid pack” or “family pack.” It sold well, but it was a labor-intensive item.

It should be mentioned that most packaging was done at the store level in those earlier years. Produce managers would stack tomatoes in different- sized pulp trays and invent their own in-store packaged combinations.

It was normal procedure to have employees working with overwrapping machines in back rooms in those days.

Retailers have since turned to handling only source-packed product, especially tomatoes. With labor being one of the top expenses in operating supermarkets, the days of back-room packaging are long gone.

As the tomato industry evolved, so too did the produce industry. Companies kept moving forward with new produce varieties and the seasonal extension of many items. Today, the tomato industry continues to move in an upward direction, and it is more innovative than ever.


The heirloom obsession

Several different tomato choices can be found in supermarkets today. Although there are many varieties, the most commonly handled are round slicers, Roma plum, cherry, grape, cluster (on the vine), beefsteak, greenhouse and organic tomatoes.

Other varieties make up an even larger choice, such as hydroponic, round yellow acid-free, tear drop, yellow cherry, and cluster cherry (on the vine).

As they say in those television infomercials, “But wait, there’s more.”

Yet another classification has entered the scene recently in the supermarket produce department — heirloom tomatoes. They are also appearing in weekly produce ads as well.

The heirloom tomato, also known as a heritage tomato in the United Kingdom, is a variety that has been passed down through many generations. Some heirloom tomatoes go back hundreds of years, and many food experts consider some of them to be the best-tasting tomatoes in the world.

We’ve learned from some of the organic growers that heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular over the past five years. More supermarkets have added them to the tomato category section. One of the consumer’s primary preferences about this tomato is that it has “flavor friendliness.”

Heirloom tomatoes are available in a great number of varieties, characteristic shapes, sizes and colors. Some are reddish-orange, yellow striped, green, purple and even brown. There are varieties such as Brown Berry, Cherokee Purple, Mr. Stripey, Moonglow, Golden Nugget, Red Zebra and Tasty Evergreen. Several can measure up to five or more inches in diameter. The beefsteak variety is considered the best for shelf life.

During a recent visit to my local Whole Foods store, I found a large, attractive display of organic heirloom tomatoes consisting of many different colors, varieties, shapes and sizes. I found many other supermarkets also carrying the heirlooms, but in a smaller way.

The main point is that the heirloom has been finding its way into produce department tomato sections on a more frequent basis. This is the exact way the hydroponic and vine clusters also were introduced into the stores during their inception.

Currently, heirloom tomatoes are grown on a small scale.

I’m told by some growers that growing heirloom tomatoes is a very demanding and difficult job. They are not like hybrids, but are actually considered a wild plant that will grow up to eight feet high.

Perhaps heirloom tomatoes are not yet a primary focus for supermarket produce operators, but the item has at least made some progress by reaching the retail testing stages.

Just consider how kiwifruit, colored peppers, white-flesh peaches, bi-colored sweet corn, baby peeled carrots and other new items evolved in the industry. Heirloom tomatoes just may be the next big trend.


Ron Pelger is the owner of RONPROCON, a consulting firm for the produce industry, and a member of the FreshXperts consortium of produce professionals. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056, by e-mail at , or check his web site at