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Publix and other stores find it hard to keep fast-selling Tasti-Lee tomatoes in stock

The launch of a new tomato bred in the bay area to prod more Florida growers into the premium end of the business has taken the market by storm.

A month into the tomato's debut at Publix Super Markets, demand for the flavorful, crimson Tasti-Lee outstrips supply.

Many stores reported a run when news of a new crossbreed first broke. It got worse as some Publix stores now can fill only a fraction of their orders.

Some passionate converts have learned to shop at Publix no later than lunch hour to ensure a tomato selection beyond a handful of the battered and bruised.

"We've never seen a tomato take off like this," said Greg Styer, regional development director of Bejo Seeds, the Dutch company licensed to get Tasti-Lee from lab to market. "There may be shortages or gaps in supply before our Florida growers begin harvesting their first tomato crops Nov. 1." The current crop is from fields in North Carolina and Georgia.

"Demand is very high and supply tight, but we anticipate this will level out as more tomatoes become available," said Shannon Patten, Publix spokeswoman.

The initial surge persuaded growers to more than double what they planned to put into the ground for harvest this winter.

Tasti-Lee was created by Jay Scott, a horticultural professor at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast research center in eastern Hillsborough County who has created dozens of strains of tomatoes. He hoped to offer Florida growers, who supply virtually all of the nation's winter tomatoes, a better option to their notorious hard, green fruit bred to survive long-haul trucking and feed the fast-food industry.

"It's been exciting but a bit tense, given the challenge of growers and stores gearing up while maintaining product quality," Scott said.

Tasti-Lee handlers did not expect Publix to extend its exclusive deal so quickly to all of its stores in five states. Most growers are small ones wary of betting too much of the farm.

"It's expensive to experiment with a product with no market," said Miguel Martinez, whose family farms 200 acres in Ruskin. "We have experimented with Tasti-Lees for four years. One reason we stuck our necks out was you-pick customers who glean our fields at the end of the season would grab every leftover Tasti-Lee first."

Move over, Zara and Forever 21. H&M, the Swedish fast-fashion chain, is now running TV ads on bay area stations and hiring local employees, but it's still not talking about when its first area store will open in Tampa's International Plaza.

You should know that mall managers penciled in the 21,000-square-foot store for a Nov. 10 opening but prefer to say "mid November."

That's shortly after IP's Nov. 2 opening of Henri Bendel. Don't be misled by the snooty New York Fifth Avenue address or the $12,000 alligator purse prominently displayed inside. Henri Bendel, a Limited Brands chain, sells handbags mostly in the $200 to $350 range and flashy, blingy jewelry and accessories priced from a $38 bracelet to a $200 necklace laced with semiprecious stones and Swarovski crystal.

Meanwhile, the Art of Shaving opens today, Ann Taylor's latest prototype store opens Oct. 7, and jeweler Uno de 50 takes the place of Wolford.

Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

Publix and other stores find it hard to keep fast-selling Tasti-Lee tomatoes in stock 09/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 9:13pm]
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