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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.