Tasti-Lee tomatoes are a finalist for best vegetable product in the United Fresh Produce Association"s New Product Awards, which will be announced May 16 in San Diego during United Fresh.

Regardless of that outcome, Bejo Seeds Inc., the Oceana, Calif.-based seed company that holds the rights to the variety, already feels like it has a winner.

"We"ve done a lot of trade shows in the past six months, and it"s an easy sell," said Michael Ryshouwer, field marketing manager for Bejo, which purchased the rights to the vine-ripened variety from the University of Florida. "You can see the difference with your own eyes if you put it next to a tomato that is picked green and gassed. This has a deep, red color that"s beautiful. The icing on the cake is when you taste it. It has that homegrown taste you get when you wait until a tomato is ripe to pick it."

Ryshouwer said Bejo has signed a contract that guarantees Florida-grown Tasti-Lees will be sold exclusively to Publix through 2014. The Florida-based retailer is featuring the variety in its At Season"s Peak promotions in May.

Tasti-Lee has been available in Florida for a few years and is grown along the East Coast all the way to New York. Now Bejo which controls who grows the variety added a West Coast supplier last year when Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., came on board.

"It"s really catching on," Ryshouwer said of the tomato, which is available year-round.

"Publix has done a great job of supporting and promoting it, but now we"re rolling it out nationally."

Ryshouwer said large national and regional chains like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Ralph"s are stocking Tasti-Lees. It also is available in nearly 100 military commissaries.

Bejo helps match growers with retailers, provides retailers with point-of-sale materials including recipes, brochures and signs and assists with in-store demonstrations. Bejo highlights claims that the Tasti-Lee has 50% more lycopene than other tomatoes.

"We give them the whole package," he said, "reliable growers, reliable supply and a marketing program that helps sell the product."

This fall, Deardorff plans to grow organic Tasti-Lees (as well as conventional product), and some East Coast growers will be testing an organic version of the product, Ryshouwer said.

Lucky"s Real Tomatoes, New York, distributes and markets the Tasti-Lee vine-ripe.