Retailers should have ample supplies of vine-ripes, romas, rounds and other tomato varieties as the Baja California, Mexico, and California tomato seasons get rolling in May and June, shippers said.
That’s a good omen for an already robust business, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing with San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, which had dealt with retail customers only indirectly until about 10 years ago.
It was then that the company launched its “Retail Ready” program, through which the company was able to work directly with chains, rather than dealing primarily with wholesale customers, Munger said.
“Now 85% of our business is direct to retail or direct to foodservice,” he said.
Suppliers said retailers like the menu of varieties available from the California and Baja growing regions. They also said certain varieties take their turns in the spotlight.
It seems to be romas’ turn now, several shippers said.
“In the last few years, it looks like the roma deal has taken over the vine-ripe deal in a lot of areas,” said Bob Schachtel, sales manager with San Diego-based Expo Fresh LLC. Larger sizes seem to draw most of the retailers’ attention, he added.
That’s not to discount vine-ripes, which still have a good market at retail, he said.
Aesthetics also are important to retail customers, said Brian Bernauer, sales director with Oceanside, Calif.-based Fresh Pac International.
He said “full color on arrival” and shelf life are crucial factors.
Grape tomatoes can be a trickier proposition, Schachtel said.
“You have to grow a right size grape,” he said.
That’s not easy to do, he said.
“Sometimes they’re either too big or too small,” he said.
Profits are sometimes hard to predict on grape tomatoes, too, Bernauer said.
“The biggest thing that shippers are finding out is that it’s very difficult to grow and make money on it,” he said.
As for pricing, retailers are apt to have plenty of fruit from which to choose out of the California and Baja regions this year, said Dick Spezzano, owner of Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Service.
“There’s no reason they shouldn’t get either one of those this year,” he said.
Tomato prices were down all winter, and there appeared to be no indication they were going to improve soon, he said.
“We had this mild winter in every growing area, so we had more than normal crops,” he said.
“Last year, we had weather problems in all areas. This year has been the opposite.”
In the early months of 2011, areas of Mexico as far south as Culiacan experienced record low temperatures, and an extensive freeze affected the normally reliable supply of tomatoes leading up to the California and Baja California seasons, a number of growers recalled.
Not so, this year, Spezzano said.
“It’s a wonderful time for supply,” he said.
Retail margins are another matter, but that’s a problem that envelops the entire produce department, he added.
“If you look at the consumer price index, prices in some categories are up 80% over last year, but not so in produce,” Spezzano said.
That won’t last long, though, Spezzano said.
“We are a cyclical business, and the same applies to retailers and growers,” he said.