Restaurants continue to crave Florida tomatoes

12/06/2011 03:13:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

RUSKIN, Fla. — Foodservice buyers retain strong appetites for Florida tomatoes.

Packers ship about 75% of the state’s mature-greens to repackers, which distribute to foodservice and retail customers. Packers sell the balance to jobbers and directly to supermarket chains.

Doug OhlemeierMature greens run the packing line at West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla.“Foodservice continues to be a boost for our industry,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

“Demand there has been steady and able to hold its own because of the different types of tomatoes that have been introduced. I don’t see the Subways and Burger Kings of the world reducing their usage. Their growth in overall stores has been continuing to climb.”

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said the foodservice sector does well with Florida tomatoes.

“Foodservice is the most prolific and a growing market that has been available in the last year or two,” he said.

“We have had growth there — this while repacker and chain store consumption has remained fairly stable.”

Superstores also increased their tomato purchases, Weisinger said.

On foodservice, buyers increasingly look for per-tomato specifications and want to purchase specific-sized tomatoes such as ones that bring six slices per tomato, Weisinger said.  

Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for Lipman, Immokalee, agrees that foodservice remains a strong mature-greens buyer while grape and cherry tomatoes experience strong retail sales.

“At this point, there is a lot of protected agriculture involved in the retail category,” Odell said.

“There’s a lot of hothouse and shade house tomatoes on the retail shelves. Tomatoes on the vine have been big for the last five years. The snacking-type tomatoes, the cherries and grapes, have seen strong growth as well.”

Like mature-greens, packers send a majority of roma tomatoes to repackers though some ship directly to retail customers, said Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato Inc.

Spencer said retailers do a good job in merchandising tomatoes.

“It’s a constant issue that we deal with, trying to figure out ways to create more consumer demand for our product,” Spencer said.

“As an industry, we should probably try to draft something unique to signal the beginning of the season. We have to figure a way to bring tomatoes to consumers in a unique way.”


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