Creating The Tasti-Lee Tomato: A Marriage Of Plant Breeding And Consumer Research

John Beuttenmuller, Executive Director, Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc.

The University of Florida has some of the most active plant breeding programs among the nation’s land-grant institutions, and releases numerous fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, forages and other crops developed by UF researchers. These cultivars are often licensed to producers who sell seed and plants to growers.

The Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc. (FFSP) is a UF direct-support organization responsible for the licensing of such improved plant varieties. In the fiscal year 2010-11, FFSP’s licensing income from all UF cultivars totaled $4.41 million, and 70 percent of that money was reinvested into the breeding programs that developed the licensed cultivars. Despite this success, our plant-breeding programs are largely unknown to consumers, due to some practical considerations.

For starters, many food crops are branded and advertised using the marketer’s name. That name may be widely recognized, generating sales on its own merits.

Generally speaking, there is little value in conveying the name of a particular cultivar to consumers. Many new varieties are bred and selected for traits that only producers would notice, such as better disease resistance. The average shopper can’t fully appreciate the importance of traits that make a production of a particular crop easier or more profitable.

One of FFSP’s biggest success stories is a new hybrid tomato sold under the Tasti-Lee brand. This unique genotype was developed to give Florida growers a foothold in the premium tomato market and to offer a high-flavor tomato to consumers. When FFSP licensed this variety and the brand, FFSP worked with our licensee, Bejo Seeds Inc., to establish the Tasti-Lee brand and plan a large-scale promotional campaign that would spotlight the University of Florida.

The Bejo marketing team was eager to help. Together, we spent a great deal of time developing labels, displays, print advertising, recipes and other materials needed to grab consumers’ attention and convince them to try this unique product. Usually, this kind of work is left completely up to our licensees, because they have made an investment and want the freedom to promote sales in whatever ways seem best.

We took the unusual step of working with Bejo on this marketing campaign because we believed Tasti-Lee was worth bragging about. We knew how consumers complained that store-bought tomatoes tasted bland. After 10 years’ development by UF tomato breeder Jay Scott, Tasti-Lee was ready to quell those complaints. It had a deep crimson color, high lycopene content and a balance of sweetness, acidity, and aroma likely to impress tomato-lovers.

We believed that by branding and promoting such a unique variety we could generate a great deal of sales and a great deal of positive publicity for UF. What’s more, we believed growers might need a little convincing to produce Tasti-Lee tomatoes because, unlike average supermarket tomatoes, this variety ripens on the vine and requires hand-picking — a costly alternative to machine harvesting that necessitates a premium price.

Before the variety was commercialized, we wanted empirical evidence that the Tasti-Lee brand would be a hit. So in spring 2009, UF began a two-year marketing study on the new variety. Aided by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we worked in partnership with Bejo and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. One of the study’s main objectives was to gauge consumer reaction to Tasti-Lee brand tomatoes in several dimensions: the fruit’s sensory qualities, consumers’ willingness to pay premium prices and so forth, and then make projections about the potential market demand for Tasti-Lee.

Consumer reaction was assessed with a survey and taste test that involved a total of 100 self-described tomato-lovers from major cities in Georgia, Indiana, and Virginia. Each participant answered questions on their produce buying and consumption habits, opinions about store-bought tomatoes, and favorite tomato traits. They also provided demographic information.

Then they tasted samples of three tomatoes — Tasti-Lee brand and two varieties commonly found in supermarkets, one average-priced and one premium-priced. The participants gave written comments on each sample’s flavor, texture, color and overall appeal.

The Tasti-Lee brand trumped the competition, being rated “good” or “excellent” by 71 percent of the participants. The store-bought premium tomato earned those ratings from 62 percent, and the average-priced store tomato was rated “good” or “excellent” by 51 percent of participants.

These results encouraged our belief that branding and advertising Tasti-Lee would be a worthwhile investment, and promotional efforts went forward as planned. The commercial release of the Tasti-Lee brand began in August 2011, throughout the southern United States, and sales have been impressive, with supermarkets often selling out their entire supply within a day or two. Plans are also underway for retail promotions and displays in major grocery store chains, such as Wegman’s and Whole Foods.