Speaking as a tomato addict, I have plenty of opinions about what makes a great tomato. I buy tomatoes at the market, and I grow a lot of tomatoes in my own outdoor and indoor gardens. However, I rarely enjoy tomatoes served to me in restaurants, and will even request tomatoes be left off my order. Most of the time the fruit is not ripe, the texture is terrible, and worst of all, it’s flavorless. Even restaurants that claim to serve fresh local heirloom tomatoes serve me unripe fruit. I know many people, including my husband, who claim to hate tomatoes. Many tomato-haters may not have been raised on, or have ever tasted, a truly well-grown, ripe, fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato should. They’ve probably gotten an overdose of restaurant tomatoes.
Restaurant tomato-haters aside, consumers buy a lot of tomatoes. According to the 2017 USDA Specialty Crops Project, “Increasing Consumption of Specialty Crops by Enhancing their Quality & Safety,” about 42 percent of participants buy tomatoes at a grocery store on a weekly basis. Another 35 percent buy them two to three times per month. That’s a lot of tomatoes. The study also lists tomatoes at the very top of the bushel when it comes to consumer knowledge of specific nutritional benefits. So, most grocery shoppers are already regularly buying tomatoes and are very educated about their value to health and wellness. Now our job is to adaptively respond to shifting preferences in fruit characteristics and provide creative uses to keep tomatoes fresh on the consumer’s mind.
Personally, I prefer the flavor and texture of tomatoes I grow myself because I have specific characteristics I’m looking for. I prefer unusual colors, such as orange; and I demand very meaty flesh that’s still juicy, with a sweet flavor. When you become accustomed to really good, fresh tomatoes it’s hard to settle for less. With the introduction of double and triple grafted tomato plants, home gardeners, even those who have struggled or given up on growing tomatoes in the past, will be encouraged anew to grow more tomatoes at home. Tomato producers must consider the impact of backyard tomato production on their own sales numbers, at least seasonally. But you can also use homegrown tomato trends and preferences to your advantage to help guide your commercial production and marketing choices.
When I buy bulk grocery store tomatoes, I look first for color, then fragrance, then level of firmness. I sniff them because I’m trying to find tomatoes that will taste good. Interestingly, the aforementioned USDA study has firmness ranked as the No. 1 tomato attribute for participating consumers, followed by juiciness and then color. Sweetness falls far behind those three attributes, as does aroma, which is interesting considering most people I talk to want more flavor from their tomatoes. I suspect that many consumers simply may not know best how to judge the ripeness and flavor potential of tomatoes they buy in the store. A packaging, labeling, and POP opportunity perhaps?
Despite my personal home-grown preference, I know that plenty of commercial tomato producers turn out wonderful tomatoes. When grocery stores are on point with their sourcing, timing, buying and maintenance practices, tomato lovers win. With off-season indoor production capabilities growing, there’s more opportunity to produce good product for store purchase year-round, another priority for the consumer: 365-day-a-year crop availability.
The popularity of heirloom tomatoes is still going strong with consumers, and unusual colors are also gaining popularity. The winning variety in my home garden this spring (we have two tomato seasons in Texas) was ‘Orange Blossom.’ The color is fantastic, the flesh is dense and juicy, and the flavor turned out better than many of my standard hybrids. Plus, production is early. ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ is another winner. These orange-colored tomatoes are still a surprise to many of my friends, family, and followers; and they have the added benefit of being higher in Vitamin C and beta-carotenes than yellow tomatoes. Yet, I don’t see many unusual tomato color options in the grocery store, other than small cherry types. I’d say there’s growth opportunity for these healthy and colorful slicers.
If you want to take advantage of the consumer’s penchant for the unusual, but don’t want to mess with temperamental heirlooms, turn to hybrid heirloom look-alikes. Be sure to check out the Coeur de Boeuf tomatoes from Syngenta, ‘Arawak,’ ‘Tomawak,’ and ‘Gigawak.’ The names are fun too.
When it comes to tomato breeding program trends, extreme climate issues are making things more challenging for the breeders. Plants that may be discarded from trials in one region might just have be perfect for regions with different climate issues. However, as more tomato production moves indoors and under lights, breeding programs are shifting to respond to these more uniform growing conditions.
Lastly, if you’re looking for new ways for your customers to use your tomatoes, you need to get on the homemade condiment bandwagon ASAP. Homemade condiments and vegetable sauces are the next big consumer culinary fascination. The trend got started with a resurgence of interest in homemade mayonnaise and is now spreading (pun intended) to other condiments. I’m already planning my first batches of custom homemade ketchup. If you currently have tomato varieties in your production arsenal that are perfect for making condiments, now’s the time to make it known.
And while you are all at it, can you work on a ‘Restaurant Ready’ tomato variety for me? Yes, I just came up with that name, so let me know when you’re ready to work on branding.