Looks Great, Tastes Fresh: Meet Our New Tomatoes

To-mato, To-ma-to. No Matter How You Slice Them, Our New Greenhouse Tomatoes Can’t Be Beat.
Jun 6, 2018 10:05 AM ET
Campaign: The Square Deal

Originally published on The Square Deal Blog

by Liliana Esposito

I have a love-hate relationship with tomatoes. As a kid, I truly hated them. If it wasn’t ketchup or spaghetti sauce, I wouldn’t go near one. The texture was slimy, the taste too bitter. At some point though, my tomato hatred started to turn. First it was chunky, homemade pico de gallo salsa that I tried and sort of liked. Then, a caprese with sliced Roma tomatoes that I didn’t just tolerate, but devoured. And finally, a beefsteak tomato from my very own garden on a hamburger off the grill – divine. A light bulb appeared. I didn’t hate tomatoes. I hated bland tomatoes.

That’s where the love-hate dynamic comes in. I know there are great tomatoes out there, but often they’re hard to find, especially in a fast food world. Even at Wendy’s®, purveyor of all things fresh and good in fast food, I always order my sandwiches without tomato. Yes, they’re fresh, sliced or chopped daily for our sandwiches and salads, and grown by fabulous farmers. But they’re seldom the star of the show on a Wendy’s sandwich, especially when the weather has impacted tomato growing regions.

We’re aiming to change that by revolutionizing how and where we buy our tomatoes. By the end of 2018, all of our tomatoes will be vine-ripened from greenhouse farms. The goal: tomatoes that taste like you grew them yourself. And did we mention that greenhouse farms bring benefits to the environment as well?

But, why tomatoes?

Decades ago, you only ate fresh tomatoes in the summer. If you were lucky, you also had an Italian grandmother who canned those tomatoes in the fall so you could enjoy them the rest of the year. But you didn’t see a ripe-from-the-vine tomato at the grocery store in January. Over time, innovation in agriculture and distribution created the modern food system we have today, which is safer and more affordable than ever before.

Enter the tomato. By nature, it’s a delicate fruit. It grows like a weed in ideal conditions, but is temperamental in what it needs to thrive. Water, but not too much. Heat and sunlight, but at the right time and in the right amount, protection from pests and disease that threaten it. Weather events often disrupt the crop and even under good conditions, it bruises easily and has to be transported carefully and quickly.

U.S. agriculture addressed these challenges, and created a commodity market of “mature green” tomatoes. When the fruit gets to be the ideal size, but still totally green, it’s harvested by hand. This is key, because as long as the fruit is still green, it will stay green for quite some time. In nature, the plant would produce a natural substance to begin the ripening process. However, tomato scientists figured out that this process could be started artificially. Mature green tomatoes are typically stored in a refrigerated warehouse, and when the producer is ready to ship them, they often get treated with ethylene to start the ripening process.

It’s all pretty cool stuff from a food science perspective, and a perfectly safe way to produce and ship millions of pounds of tomatoes all over North America. The problem is that the taste of these tomatoes tends to be sacrificed for durability.

Reinventing the red wheel

We thought there had to be a better way, particularly as we saw our customers’ expectations rising. In my Ohio grocery stores in the dead of winter, I can get clusters of delicious, deep red tomatoes still on the vine. Many of these, if you look closely, carry labels like “Hydroponic,” “Greenhouse-grown,” or “Hothouse grown.” Why, we wondered at Wendy’s, couldn’t we get some of these beauties into our restaurants? Could we bring the flavor of the garden to more than 6,000 Wendy’s every day? Could we improve the safety of the product and the people who harvest it by growing indoors? And wouldn’t that also bring other benefits like reducing the need for pesticides, and more sustainable land and water resource use?

It wasn’t easy to do. We needed to supply thousands of restaurants in the U.S. and Canada with shipments twice a week, every week. They had to be the same size every time, look and taste consistently good whether they’re served in Washington state or Washington, DC, and meet our very strict standards for food safety and quality. But we think we’ve figured out a path to better tomatoes and the transition is rapidly underway. I’m eager to see the results – and hear from our customers what they think. Selfishly, I can’t wait to order a Dave’s Single® and not hold the tomato.