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.

Styers says he likes the punnits because they act like a billboard and provide space to tell the Tasti-Lee story.

Bejo also has a quick-response code printed on the punnits so consumers can scan it with their smart phone and be taken to the Tasti-Lee website. As part of the company’s marketing efforts, it also has a strong social media campaign that includes the Tasti-Lee Facebook page.

More recently, Bejo has entered into arrangements with Kroger and Safeway Inc., to name a few retail chains.

Each time Styers and his group make a presentation in front of retailers, he says it includes a show and tell where they cut fruit and compare their variety with conventional tomatoes.

Showing the fruit side by side really drives home the points, he says. “We’ve learned if we just call on the retailers and talk about the tomato, it’s not as effective as being there and demonstrating the product,” he says.


Variety needs TLC

Unlike greenhouse production, open-field production carries significantly more risks.

“The challenges that we face are both cultural and environmental, Styers says. “As a group we’ve learned how to best manage the Tasti-Lee growing process to maintain consistency, color, and flavor.”

Even a small change, such as switching from granular to liquid fertilizer, can affect fruit flavor and quality.

Harvesting and packing also proved to be a learning experience, and crews have had to buy into the program, Martinez says.

“One of the most important practices is handling, and you have to have a crew that will handle the tomato correctly,” he says. “It’s become a marriage with our crew.”

Instead of using picking buckets like those used by growers of mature greens, Martinez’s crew uses two layer totes. The first row of fruit is placed shoulders up. The second layer is placed shoulders down.

Even though the fruit is firm when picked red, the two-layer pattern helps retain quality, Styers says.

Martinez says he’s also learned that Tasti-Lee doesn’t like drastic changes. So he’s careful about temperature fluctuations between the field, packinghouse and storage.

And whatever he does, Martinez says he never stores the fruit below 55 degrees since that will reduce volatiles and associated flavor.


Marketing 101

click image to zoomTasti-Lee tomatoVicky BoydTasti-Lee can be left on the vine until deep red, yet the fruit remains firm. The variety was developed through conventional breeding.Bejo has borrowed a page from the apple industry and its experiences with managed or “club” varieties.

Selected producers are recruited to grow Tasti-Lee, and the seed company has established quality and packing standards that growers must follow.

Five growers have been registered to produce the variety nationwide. Support growers can work with the registered growers to provide fruit, too.

In addition, participating growers have to agree to market all their fruit through Bejo Seeds and the arrangements it has with retailers.

The program is guided by a grower advisory committee that meets regularly, Styers says. Although some of the registered growers are marketplace competitors, he says he’s impressed about how they work together when the UF variety is involved.

Producing a branded variety may not be for every grower, but Martinez says he supports the program wholeheartedly, citing the doors it has opened. In fact, the UF variety is the only round tomato he grows now.

“Tasti Lee has given me the opportunity to talk to HEB with the help of Bejo,” Martinez says. “If I were selling regular tomatoes, I don’t think I’d have that opportunity.”

Read more about the Tasti-Lee.

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