Subway’s famous Jared, the weight-loss guy, is all about Arkansas tomatoes. Just ask Scott Strzelecki, Development Agent for Subway.
“I am sure if we asked Jared, he’d prefer an Arkansas tomato,” Strzelecki says. “They are simply a superior product in the U.S. They really are.” Three years ago, Subway, the largest franchise in the world, made a decision to use locally-grown Arkansas tomatoes.
“I’ve been with Subway 30 years in June,” Strzelecki says. “Throughout the years, we bought tomatoes and food from whoever we could, from the back of a truck. Back then, the food safety regulations weren’t as strong. Now, we buy from accredited farms that go through an extreme audit process for safety measures and equipment.”
Three years ago, a member of the Independent Purchasing Cooperative for Subway approached Strzelecki and others in the company about visiting a southern Arkansas tomato farm.
“The idea was for us to buy locally,” he says. “In touring a few farms, I learned that how to grow a tomato is a lot more complex than I thought. I didn’t expect to see the amount of generational knowledge and the difference in an Arkansas tomato.”
James Meeks, co-owner of Triple M Farms, knows a thing or two about farming knowledge passed down through generations. “My family has been farming the same ground for four or five generations now,” Meeks says.
Triple M Farms sells tomatoes and bell peppers to Del Monte. “Everybody likes a good tomato,” Meeks says. “[In Arkansas] we have a combination in the kind of ground and our weather that allows us to vine ripen the tomatoes, which really enhances the taste.”
Tomatoes that have to travel from either coast aren’t the best quality for inland United States, Strzelecki says. But because Arkansas tomatoes are grown locally, they can be picked ripe, and have a better flavor and taste. Customers know the tomatoes are from Arkansas from the Arkansas Grown sticker on the doors of Subway restaurants and on table tents highlighting growers and their farms.
Growers for Del Monte, like Triple M Farms, began supplying Arkansas tomatoes for 336 Subway stores in four states – Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. “We’re the only territory in the nation doing this,” Strzelecki says. “And while it’s only for about six weeks in the summer, (June to the end of July or early August), it makes a difference. We’re currently getting tomatoes and bell peppers, and we hope to expand to having Arkansas cucumbers as well.”
The tomato that Subway prefers is smaller (to fit perfectly on a sandwich when sliced) than what many in the market prefer.
“They don’t produce a smaller tomato on purpose, but they do get some smaller tomatoes, and before this, they didn’t really know what to do with them,” Strzelecki says. “They’d either sell them for a lower price or throw them away. We’re able to put more money into the economy by buying those smaller tomatoes.”
Michael Hensley of Hermitage, Ark., grows tomatoes and purchases them from other farmers to sell to Del Monte and Wal-Mart.
“My father-in-law and I started the business 20 years ago buying tomatoes at auction,” Hensley says. “We would buy them from local growers and resell them.”
After a few years, Hensley decided to buy directly from growers with the goal of offering them a higher price.
“At auction, a purchaser didn’t know what he would have to pay, and a grower didn’t know what price he’d receive,” Hensley says. “It’s tough to do business that way. Prices were very up and down.”
Over time, Michael increased from one distribution center to eight. He and his wife, Beth, also began raising tomatoes themselves. He took his cattle pasture land and turned it into tomato production.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry – from the varieties to the food safety processes,” Hensley says. “Nine years ago the biggest seller was a round slicer, now it’s a Roma. We are required to be certified for food safety – they come and audit us every year. I hired a full-time person just for food safety.”
He still helps a lot of other growers market their crop as well.
Sometime in February, you’ll find Hensley and his crew planting tomatoes in the hot houses. By the end of March or first of April, the plants are moved to fields. Harvest, which is done by hand, begins in June and lasts through July.
“Del Monte and I have become a business partnership unlike anywhere else,” Hensley says. “Their commitment to me is extremely high, and I have a high opinion of the people I work with. We respect each other.”
Each crate of tomatoes from Arkansas is clearly labeled with a blue sticker in the shape of the state of Arkansas.
“It’s pretty identifiable,” Hensley says. “And we’re proud of it. We’ve had folks tell us they’ve found our tomatoes all the way in South Dakota.”