Opinion: heirloom tomato demand shows ripple effect of 'local' movement

January 21 , 2013

By Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation director of marketing Kevin Delaney

Head Shot- Kevin Delaney _ smallThe increasing popularity of buying local produce is creating a ripple effect on consumer purchasing preferences outside the local season. As consumers continue to experience the benefits of eating local fresh fruits and vegetables their expectations on how produce should taste elevates. When harvesting winds down from local farms this group of influential consumers looks to their supermarket to meet their heightened expectations.

The heirloom tomato category is an excellent example of how retailers are responding to this development. For decades now, supermarket tomatoes have been scrutinized for being tasteless. As tomato growers and buyers continue to weigh the cost of growing quality over quantity, heirloom tomatoes are able to fill that void while giving consumers premium flavor year-round.

Visionaries like Joe Procacci had the foresight to predict that consumers would be willing to pay a premium price for flavor.

In 2002, Mr. Procacci developed a ground-breaking heirloom-type variety called the UglyRipe® Tomato. At the time, heirlooms were not commercially grown but could be found in many local farmers markets.  Mr. Procacci believed the distinct look of the UglyRipe might look foreign to the supermarket shopper, especially when merchandised in a tomato section full of consistently sized and perfectly shaped tomatoes.  He named the brand, UglyRipe, to show the shopper that the misshapen tomato was no mistake.

Heirloom tomatoes have an old fashioned look to them. For many shoppers, the purchase is a feeling of nostalgia that brings them back to their grandparent’s garden or kitchen. Their shape and color often lacks consistency from one tomato to the next, which only creates a greater sense of authenticity. Every tomato needs to be carefully hand picked to limit the risk of bruising. Producers experience significantly higher shrink when growing heirlooms; farmers may loose more than 50% of what is harvested before the product reaches supermarket shelves.

Growing and handling heirloom tomatoes is a challenge that requires extra effort throughout the supply chain.  Heirlooms are juicy and tender, which is great for flavor but less than optimal for handling.

The concave stem and rigid shoulders of the tomato limit the ability to pack the tomatoes in multiple layers without risking bruising, particularly in the larger sizes. To maximize shelf life, retailers face similar challenges to ensure employees stock shelves carefully and merchandise the product in no more than two layers. However, with all things considered, consumers have showed a willingness to pay a premium price for the end result. At the right price in the right market, these tomatoes can boast a significant return for retailers.

In the short-term, opportunities for increasing sales will have a lot to do with educating consumers on the benefits of buying heirlooms.

There is a growing and influential group of consumers that are seeking out only the highest quality ingredients for their recipes. To witness this movement first hand, one only needs to search “heirloom tomato” on Pinterest. As demand continues to grow, more growers will naturally enter the market to compete.  To protect the heirloom brand and continue its growth, the industry will need to be committed to producing tomatoes that exceed customers’ taste expectations.

To ensure the category yields long-term returns, retailers will need to forge relationships with vendors that prove to be innovative and agile enough to adapt to emerging trends.  Buyers will need to taste, touch, feel and continually evaluate the varieties and brands they source. The ripple effect of the local movement is going to impact most categories in the produce department as the demand for fresh and more flavorful produce grows.


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