( Courtesy Florida Department of Agriculture )

Florida tomato suppliers looking to push product through retail and foodservice channels have some help from the state department of agriculture’s Fresh From Florida program.

Fresh From Florida works with retailers in the domestic and Canadian marketplace, said Mindy Lee, bureau chief with Fresh From Florida, a marketing arm of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“There are a number of different ways in which we partner with retailers to promote Florida tomatoes with incentives to encourage promotions of the fruit,” Lee said.

Options include placing Fresh From Florida tomatoes on ad in weekly circulars, in-store samplings, display contests and couponing, Lee said.
“We also provide each produce buyer a list of tomato producers that are Fresh From Florida members,” she said.

Florida fresh tomatoes have been “an integral part” of Fresh From Florida promotions since 2000, when the program’s first large-scale retail campaigns began, with 298 stores in two retail chains.

“Marketers began operations, using in-store circular ads, demos, recipes and even display contests,” Lee said. “In fact, the very first major retail campaigns begun in 2000-04 centered on Florida tomatoes and display contests.”

The program has only grown in the years since, Lee said.

“Today, after two decades of building programs and business relationships, our domestic and international retail teams meet with produce category buyers of more than 50 retail chains worldwide representing more than 10,000 stores annually,” she said. 

“With solid performance records and superior products we continue to provide a solid sales-based foundation that supports an array of Fresh From Florida products, including our fresh tomatoes.”

Fresh From Florida employs analytics to provide marketers with “insight and statistics” to help sell programs to consumers in 25 nations, Lee said.
Consumers are aware of the program, so it’s working, Lee said.

“Our research team finished conducting an eight-month-long survey of Florida consumers from October 2018 through May 2019 and discovered that 84% of respondents indicated they had seen our Fresh From Florida logo on packaging inside of our many retail partners,” she said. 

“This type of product and consumer testing helps our promotional teams to optimize our product sales and develop different supportive components which further enhances consumer ‘recall’ of our products and increasing subsequent sales.”

As for the current season, sales seemed to be progressing, although more sluggishly than expected, said Bob Spencer, vice president of sales with Palmetto, Fla.-based West Coast Tomato LLC.

“Business has been decent, but not as good as it normally has been in prior falls,” Spencer said. 

“It was a little slow this year, and you can never really pinpoint the reason. Demand hasn’t been quite as good as in the past, but hopefully, that will change over the next few weeks.”

Restaurants are steady customers, as well, suppliers note.

“Foodservice is good,” said Michael Meininkaitis, director of operations for Plainville, Conn.-based Northeast Produce Inc. and owner of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc. in Immokalee, Fla. 

He noted that his company’s sales balance between retail and foodservice is “kind of 50-50ish.”

“More foodservice guys are looking for a true vine-ripe, as opposed to a gas-green,” Meininkaitis said. 

“It’s got a little more full flavor. The gas greens hold longer. Foodservice tends towards that, but some have certain customers that want a true vine-ripe.” P