Branded tomato variety earns a following

12/11/2013 05:00:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

In the commodity-laden world of produce, branded varieties are a rarity.

Not only do growers and packers need a product that stands out among the crowd, but they also require a supporting marketing program that will differentiate it in the eyes of buyers and consumers.

Tasti-Lee, the brand name applied to the Florida 8153 tomato variety developed by University of Florida breeder Jay Scott, has slowly grown during the past three years to become one of those rarities.

The semi-premium variety has raised the bar for flavor in the tomato category. In addition, it has helped participating growers survive tough economic times, says Greg Styers, Bejo Seeds sales and product development manager. The University of Florida granted the family-owned Dutch seed company exclusive rights to the Tasti-Lee variety.

“[Flavor] is the major component that is driving the consumer to purchase this because tomatoes have been one of those things that had been driven by price,” says Michael Lacey, director of sales and marketing for Wimauma-based Tomato Thyme. “Now consumers are saying, ‘Wow, this is a better tasting tomato.’”

Tomato Thyme is one of five registered Tasti-Lee growers in the country. Even so, growers say the flavorful variety isn’t without challenges, such as fine-tuning fertility, handling, harvest, disease management and packing.

“It’s not easy,” said Miguel Martinez, president of MVP Produce, Ruskin, and another registered Tasti-Lee grower. “It’s stressful. It’s tough.”


Doing their homework

Even before Bejo launched the Tasti-Lee program, it secured a $43,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 2008 to develop a strategy for establishing the variety as an alternative tomato crop for the state’s growers.

As part of the grant, consumer focus groups were conducted in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Richmond, Va.

Participants were asked about the variety’s flavor, color and size. One of the variety’s traits is it tends to produce fruit slightly smaller than many conventional tomatoes.

What they found was that size really didn’t matter, Styers says. What consumers were impressed with was the variety’s deep red color, nice firmness and most importantly, flavor.

click image to zoomTasti-Lee tomatoesVicky BoydMiguel Martinez (left), president of MVP produce, shows off some of the Tasti-Lee tomatoes he’s grown. Martinez works closely with Greg Styers of Bejo Seeds throughout the growing season to ensure the crop meets quality standards.

Show and tell

After short stints with Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods and San Antonio-based HEB, Bejo entered into a long-term arrangement with Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. to supply all of its 1,100 stores with Tasti-Lee. About half of the volume is sold bulk with identifying stickers whereas the other half is packed in shrink-wrapped punnits.

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