If tomato sales are in a summer slump as customers venture into their backyard gardens or patronize local farm stands or farmers markets instead of your produce department, consider enticing them back to your own tomato section by focusing on something a bit out of the ordinary — heirloom varieties.

Heirlooms probably are as close as you’re going to come to equaling the taste of backyard or locally-grown fruit, says Jim Durst, partner with his wife Deborah in Durst Organic growers Inc., Esparto, Calif.

“People want a better-tasting tomato, and heirlooms certainly deliver on that promise,” adds John King, vice president of sales for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

“We’ve seen stronger demand (for heirlooms) the last few years,” he says, while sales of romas and vine-ripes remain strong but fairly unchanged.

Heirloom tomatoes are “the icing on the cake in the tomato category,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla.

Heirlooms offer “summer flavor year-round, great appearance, concentrated flavor and fragrant variety,” he says.

What’s an heirloom?

Although no formal criteria define “heirloom,” it’s generally agreed that an heirloom variety is “open-pollinated and has been grown for several generations or is associated with a specific area, farm or family,” says Jenna Feest, writer for San Diego-based Specialty Produce.

Heirloom tomatoes are not the easiest varieties to grow, Durst admits.

“They’re a little finicky,” and therefore, a bit pricier.

“They’re not going to fly out the door like a typical greenhouse tomato would,” Eagle says, but they attract the same customers who are buying fancy cheeses, artisanal breads and high-end meats, fish and wines.

Yields are difficult to predict from year to year and variety to variety, so most distributors offer packs with several types of heirlooms rather than sell boxes containing a particular variety.

Hundreds of varieties of heirlooms are available, Durst says, and most fall into specific color categories — usually yellow, orange, black, wine or bicolor with a few white or green ones.

Although some of the best-eating heirlooms are red, many suppliers avoid that color because they already have a red program with traditional tomatoes, and retailers fear red heirlooms might not be rung up at their premium prices.

Prices typically are higher in winter and lower in summer, Eagle says, so now is a good time to introduce novice buyers to the flavorful world of heirlooms.

Varieties abound

Andrew & Williamson focuses on four varieties year-round, King says — brandywine red, which he says is the most popular red heirloom; brandywine yellow, a low-acid, mild tomato with “hints of sweetness”; Cherokee purple, characterized by a smoky flavor with a slightly sweet aftertaste; and Kellogg’s breakfast, with a sweet flavor and “hints of tropical and spicy tastes.”

Durst offers the orange Kellogg’s breakfast, the bicolor gold medal, the pink brandywine, the black Cherokee and occasionally the yellow persimmon varieties. He considers black tomatoes, of which there are 30 to 40 kinds, to be among the best.

 Heirloom tomatoes are among a number of items included in the new MaidenEarth brand from Nogales, Ariz.-based Ta-De Produce Distributing, says president Bob Bennen Jr.

The “aspirational-themed label” will be promoted at trade shows and to consumers directly and will use quick tips and “lifestyle-type hacks” to demystify produce selection and preparation, he says.

Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., which markets the wrinkly UglyRipes brand, tested a half-dozen new colored heirloom varieties earlier this year and plans to expand the program out of Mexico starting in November under the Santa Sweets label, says Rick Feighery, vice president of sales.

More options

Pure Hothouse Foods Inc., Leamington, Ontario, carries up to eight varieties of heirlooms under the Pure Flavor label, says Sarah Pau, director of marketing.

They’re available in bulk and prepackaged containers that can cater to individual retailers. They come in a display-ready box, and the company has additional options that can create added shelf space at the store level, she says.

(this story appeared in the July 2017 issue of Produce Retailer magazine)


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