Make us your home page

Locally bred Tasti-Lee tomato hits Publix's produce aisle

A decade in the making, a more flavorful breed has emerged to help Florida growers shed their reputation for rock-hard, tasteless tomatoes.

Say hello to the Tasti-Lee, a tomato cooked up in a University of Florida research lab in rural Hillsborough County that debuted last week at Publix Super Markets.

It's a crossbreed designed to give Florida growers, who sell three-quarters of their crop to fast-food restaurants or to be chopped into products like salsa or sauce, a way to get in the premium tomato business they ceded long ago.

"Too many premium tomatoes today have a sour, acidic taste, so I balanced Tasti-Lee with a sweetness that tested very well" with aficionados, said Jay Scott, the 62-year-old horticulturist who wed two strains of tomatoes never sold commercially to create the new hybrid. "Plus it's naturally crimson."

Unlike a genetically modified Florida tomato that Monsanto Co. abandoned in the lab years ago because it turned to mush too quickly, Tasti-Lee was not created by DNA gene splicing. It was crossbred the old-fashioned way, like flowering plants.

Tasti-Lee is named after Scott's mother-in-law, a tomato fancier from Spring Hill who encouraged him to tackle the job and got a taste of the results before dying in 2006.

It took him five years to select and refine the breed pair, two more years to assemble and test enough seeds and almost three more years to rustle up enough growers and retailers to launch the new tomato.

After a stalled run in 16 Whole Foods stores in Florida, Tasti-Lee was sold successfully at HEB Foods in Texas before Publix put them in all 1,100 of its stores in fives states.

"We're selling at lot of them," said Shannon Patten, spokeswoman for Lakeland-based Publix, which signed a three-year exclusive deal to sell Tasti-Lees in Florida.

Except for some pricey Ugly Ripe heirloom tomatoes and a few vine-ripe varieties, Florida growers — who create virtually all the nation's winter tomato crop — stick almost exclusively with varieties bred for long shelf life. They're picked green and as hard as Grannie Smith apples to endure the rough handling of long distance trucking. They are gassed to ripen to pink, while vine ripened tomatoes spend more time in the field.

Tasti-Lee gives up a week of shelf life in the swap for better taste and denser flesh.

"We're hoping to persuade more growers to switch to more flavor and give up the gas," said Greg Styers, a sales and product development manager for Bejo Seeds, the Dutch company that owns the license.

Bay area grocers once thought shoppers would never pay more than $1.50 a pound for fresh tomatoes. Then in the mid 1990s some savvy field gleaners in Plant City got $2.70 a pound from Winn-Dixie shoppers for tomatoes that growers thought were too ripe to harvest so they gave them away.

Grocers noticed. As Americans learned to expect better-tasting tomatoes year-round, a market developed for premium vine-ripened or hot house tomatoes imported from Canada, Mexico and Holland that commonly fetch $1.99 to $3.50 a pound. Publix prices Tasti-Lees at $2.49 a pound.

The current crop is coming from growers who have bay area operations but have active fields this time of year in Georgia and Alabama. By November, when the first crops are picked in Central Florida, at least three growers will be producing vine ripened Tasti-Lees in Ruskin.

As for Scott, he's "about to pinch" himself over the early market reception to Tasti-Lee, but turning to other projects.

That includes an even more rugged type of tomato for growers who want to stick with picking tomatoes green but face a migrant worker pay dispute. At least four years away, the new strain would be suited for machine picking.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

Locally bred Tasti-Lee tomato hits Publix's produce aisle 08/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 12:01pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. FBI warns of spreading W-2 email theft scheme

    Personal Finance

    The IRS is warning businesses about a sharp increase in email phishing scams involving employees' W-2 forms — scams that can put staffers' Social Security numbers and other critical information in the hands of thieves.

    The IRS is warning businesses about a sharp increase in email phishing scams involving employees' W-2 forms.
[McClatchy DC/TNS file photo]
  2. Walmart expands grocery delivery service in Florida markets


    TAMPA — Walmart is formally launching its grocery delivery service in Tampa, the company announced Monday, as it expands its delivery test into Orlando and Dallas. Five locations around Tampa are offering delivery for online grocery orders.

    Walmart is expanding its grocery delivery to Tampa, the company announced Monday. | [Times file photo]
  3. Marina at Hudson Beach poised to become 24-unit condominium-hotel


    HUDSON — One of the mainstay businesses at Hudson Beach is poised for redevelopment into a 24-unit condominium-hotel.

    The owners of Skeleton Key Marina in Hudson have filed preliminary plans with Pasco County to redevelop the site into a 24-unit condominium-hotel.
  4. Have your say Tampa Bay on the region's future transit options

    Mass Transit

    TAMPA — It's time, yet again, for Tampa Bay residents to tell officials what kind of transit options they want for their region.

    The Cross-Bay Ferry docks at the Tampa Convention Center on its maiden voyage on Nov. 1, 2016. A regional premium transit study will determine whether a ferry, or other options such as express buses or light rail, would be a good addition to Tampa Bay. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
  5. SOCom seeks civilian drone pilots to develop new technology through ThunderDrone


    TAMPA — For the last three years, Nicole Abbett has been using drones as part of her photography business, with clients like the city of Tampa and construction companies.

    Josh Newby, 31, Palm Harbor, of Tampa Drones fly's a drone in England Brothers park, Pinellas Park, 8/25/16. As drone popularity increases as a hobby and business, local governments are navigating a legal grey area- where, when, and how should drone flights be allowed?