Marty Mazzanti, founder of The Produce Exchange, wasn’t losing any sleep over the glutted tomato market in early February.
Like other companies, the Livermore, Calif.-based distributor-shipper has some diversity in its offerings: cucumbers, bell peppers, squashes and eggplant, among others, are also in the lineup. But unlike some, Mazzanti remained bullish on tomatoes.
The Produce Exchange is adding 25,000 square feet of cold space to its 50,000-square-foot Nogales, Ariz., facility. That’s expected to be fully operational by March 1.
“A lot of business goes through there,” Mazzanti said.
“In the tomato category, it’s every SKU you can imagine and a few you can’t.”
The company aimed for something like an unimaginable consumer experience — an unusually meaty tomato — when it launched its first full season of Tesoro in October. Production will be year-round.
The hothouse-grown Tesoro (Italian for “treasure”) is sourced equally out of Sinaloa’s Culiacan area and Michoacan. It’s based on Intense, a roma-type tomato from Nunhems Seeds Private Ltd.
“We’re private labeling for Raley’s, but it’s still called Tesoro,” Mazzanti said.
“Safeway will have them in four divisions — Northern California, Southern California, Chicago and Eastern — in mid-February.”
“It’s a full-flesh tomato, with no gel cavity,” he said.
“When you cut it, it’s solid meat. You can squeeze it over the top of your head and not get one drop of juice.”
That may disappoint any consumers who want to shampoo with tomato juice, but The Produce Exchange is betting that backyard barbecuers and restaurant chefs will take to the new variety.
Tesoro comes in a 22-ounce bag for retail and a 25-pound bulk container for foodservice. Mazzanti said it’s faced some initial hurdles in restaurants.
An online video promotes the product.
“There’s a bit of sticker shock to begin with,” he said.
“When you look at the premiums we have to get, it’s challenging in foodservice because they’re watching their dollar.”
Nevertheless, some of the gap is bridged by Tesoro’s yield versus a conventional roma, according to the distributor.
“If you slice and put it in the oven to deepen the flavor, at the end it will weigh 63% more than a traditional tomato,” he said.
“Restaurants don’t often grill a tomato because it ends up being a blob and not very good looking.”
“At retail the formula works better,” he said.
“It’s $2.99 to $3.99 a bag. Most packaged tomatoes are 10-16 ounces and sell for the same as our 22. We’re at a price point that’s very acceptable, and we’re getting good movement. The baseline is continuing to grow.”
Mazzanti first encountered Nunhems’ Intense variety in Spain in 2006. A year later, The Produce Exchange ran a 600-plant trial in Baja.
In each of the past four years, they’ve run 2-hectare precommercial trials in Culiacan. Retail and foodservice tests were also done.
However foodservice business proceeds from here, Tesoro was definitely developed for cooking, or at least for applications beyond salads, like sandwiches or pico de gallo.
“Instead of disintegrating, it gets grill lines like a steak or peach and holds its shape,” Mazzanti said.
“When you slice or bake it, the first thing you notice is you don’t get a wagon wheel where the gel falls out of a regular tomato.”
Sandwiches without sogginess are the aim.
“You can have a full tomato sauce in 20 minutes,” Mazzanti said. “You can pull the skins out with your tongs.”