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carolyn137 November 24, 2008 09:07 AM

Selling to Chefs And Retail Places
The first thread is all about Farmer's Markets so I thought I'd add a thread for selling fruits to chef's and to a retail place and see if others are interested.

Since I've done both, and for several years running, I'd be glad to describe the plusses and minuses of both ventures and a bit more. As I experienced it.

But today I just MUST get my blurbs for my new varieties done and send them to Joanne at SSE for the 2009 Yearbook. She already knows I'll be a bit late, but I usually am.:roll:

So, anyone interested in selling to chefs and retail places, I mean other than chefs,obviously.:)

If so I'll come back and share what the problems might be as I see it. It can also be very rewarding.

Zana November 24, 2008 10:50 AM

I'd definitely be interested to hear what the pluses and minuses are, Carolyn. Please post some of your experiences....but when you're finished your SSE blurbs. Thanks. I've been considering this for a few years. And I know Tomatoaddict took it on big time this year. So I'm definitely going to consider it for next year or the next....depending upon where I'll be.

natural November 25, 2008 08:39 AM

[FONT=Times New Roman]Here is my experience with sales to chefs[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]Pluses [/FONT][/B]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Full retail prices[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Guaranteed regular sales[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Expanded sales (we have had many chefs tell their peers about us and then we gain 3 or 4 more restaurants with no effort on our part) [/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]Minuses[/FONT][/B]

[FONT=Times New Roman]It may be difficult to work in-week deliveries around a full-time job[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]We never had any issues until this past season. With the horrible economic conditions, a few restaurants slightly cut back on orders due to down sales. We simply added a few more restaurants to make up.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Here was my approach to restaurant sales:[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]My plan was to have something that no one else does. Then I would have no competition. So I planned to grow as much variety and as many color combinations as possible.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Next, I sought out chefs that I knew were as passionate about their food as I am about my tomatoes. These chefs have a great interest in flavor and presentation. They actually have more interest in the different varieties that many of my market customers.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]For soliciting new sales, it is best to have actual product to showcase and sample.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]If I am soliciting new chefs during the harvest season, I will bring a “sample tasting” box for the chef and at least one “restaurant sales” box. I always made an immediate sale of the restaurant box before leaving. [/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]If I am soliciting new chefs outside of the harvest season, I would bring photos of my restaurant boxes and maybe tomato seed catalogues with pix.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]As far as scheduling an interview with a chef, I found it difficult to strike up a new relationship with a chef over the phone DURING the harvest season. Around here there is no shortage of farmers (and now distributors) with heirloom tomatoes for sale ( though none with the variety we have). So, I started “showing up” at restaurants during off-peak hours with a sample chefs box. This may not be an approach that many are comfortable with, but having the chef actually SEE the tomatoes was the only way to convey to them that I had something that no on else had. This approach has been very successful for us.[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]Chef Interviews:[/FONT][/B]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Every chef/restaurant is different. I would review the restaurant menu first. Then when I interviewed a chef I would ask the following questions:[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]What are you looking for?[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]What dishes would you like to make?[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]How do you prepare the tomatoes (Sliced, chopped, cooked etc)?[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]More specific questions are:[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]What size of tomato do you use? Do they need to all be the same size or can you use different sizes?[/FONT][/B]
[FONT=Times New Roman](This answer will give you your diameter range)[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]What colors of tomato would you like?[/FONT][/B]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]Are odd-shaped tomatoes okay? (Don’t just assume they are)[/FONT][/B]
[FONT=Times New Roman]This is usually acceptable if they are chopping them.[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]How many lbs (of each category) do you need per week? How many lbs per delivery if more than 1 delivery per week?[/FONT][/B]
[FONT=Times New Roman]We always need to supply more ripe tomatoes for Fri-Sun versus Mon-Thurs[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]How many delivery days per week would you like? [/FONT][/B]
[FONT=Times New Roman]You would be surprised here. Some chefs tend to be very accommodating (too accommodating). Some would be happy with 1 delivery per week. If the tomatoes get too ripe before end of week, they throw them in the cooler. I personally find this unacceptable. I did not bust my butt for months only to have them “chill” my tomatoes. I would rather take the initiative and so 2 deliveries per week (even with the cost of gas). I try to schedule all restaurants on the same 2 days-of-week to minimize travel time.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Many chefs I deal with will use any and everything that I have. The will create dishes based on what I bring. Of course, it is not always this easy. I have received many different replies from chefs:[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Here are some of my restaurant examples:[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Only want baseball size to make a “stack” appetizer.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Only want large size for caprese salads.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Want all different sizes/colors for presentation.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Only want cherries of a specific size for skewers..[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Want different size cherries.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Only want plum tomatoes (different colors) for pizzas or salads.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Want only white tomatoes for a sauce.[/FONT]
[FONT=Times New Roman]Want only small fruited for preserves.[/FONT]

[B][FONT=Times New Roman]Other thoughts:[/FONT][/B]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Don’t over-commit to a chefs with regard to how many lbs per week and how many weeks you will have product. It’s hard to earn their trust but easy to lose it. You can always sell extra tomatoes at a local farmers market.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Never bring dirty, cracked, or overripe tomatoes to a chef. This may sound obvious, but it is more common than you might think. [/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]We delivered in single layer 10# tomato boxes. We never stacked tomatoes in boxes.[/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]We always asked for feedback. [/FONT]

[FONT=Times New Roman]Bill[/FONT]

cdevidal November 25, 2008 09:09 PM

GREAT post Bill! Just the information I would be looking for if I should move to that.

What size is your garden/farm?
How much do you typically yield per acre?
Which varieties do you tend to sell the most of, or is it an even mix?
Is there a high demand for organic?

Dukerdawg November 25, 2008 09:44 PM

Yes Bill, excellent information. My biggest question to you is simple. Is the specific requests per each chef worth the trouble of selecting exactly what they want vs. selling everything at a farmers market? It seems to me that they are so particular it would be very time consuming to select and divide out, not to mention being extremely specific on delivery times etc. that it would need to pay a significant amount over just averaging everything grown at a market or similar venue. Just a question about your pricing, and of course that varies widely not only within a particular area, but of course different parts of the country vary greatly as well.


carolyn137 November 25, 2008 09:59 PM

If so I'll come back and share what the problems might be as I see it. It can also be very rewarding.


Is what I said above but Bill has preempted much of what I was going to say about selling to chefs.:)

i spent the AM finalizing my SSE listings, as I said above was my first priority, and got that sent off to Joanne at SSE.

There are still some things/issues that I'd like to contribute, but not tonight b'c it's been a long long day.

I want to talk not just about chefs but also selling fruits and plants at a large farm stand where there are some very different issues to be addressed, in my experience.

natural November 25, 2008 10:26 PM


The restaurant sales CAN be complicated. However, the examples that I listed need not apply. I just wanted to list the types of requests that we received.

We were very fortunate to have a huge selection of restaurants to choose from. After my first year of growing, I "Cherry picked" the chefs that I wanted to deal with. All of those chefs fell into the "We'll take whatever you have" category. If you can find those chefs, it's really a no-brainer.

For delivery times, the chefs were very flexible. I actually chose the delivery days and times. The only thing they required was that I "show up" when I said I would, with the agreed on quantities. So, I was able to work within my own schedule.

Pricing for the metro Atlanta area is $4 to $5 PER LB.
A typical delivery for me was maybe 120 lbs (3 times a week) or larger volumes if only doing 2 deliveries a week. This equates to around $500 for a 3 hour round trip for the smaller delivery.

The issue I have with only selling exclusively at Farmers Markets is: If you have a fair volume of tomatoes and IT RAINS OUT your weekend market, you are stuck. That happened to us one time and we lost $1000 in sales because we did not have another outlet. That never happened to us again.

Pricing: We charged the same amount for chefs and farmers markets. $4 to $5 a lb here is comparable to the local "Upscale Grocery". We could have charged more because our tomatoes are better than the "overripe heirlooms that are over a week old and shipped across the country" at the upscale grocery. However, we felt like we were getting a fair price and supplying a superior product to our customers. Everyone is happy.

Many people sell their #1's to chefs and #2's at markets. We tried to never sell inferior product at the markets. Again we charge the same prices, so the quality should be just as good. IF we sold out of #1's we would offer #2's at reduced prices and made it VERY CLEAR with signage. Having top quality at the markets gave us a HUGE advantage over others.


Yes. There is a HUGE demand for organic (which we were), although, locally/sustainably grown is becoming just as important. Many organic farmers that I know are choosing to drop their "Organic" status and focus more on communicating their sustainable growing methods to customers. Many customers are happy just being able to put a "face" with their veggies.

Growing size ranged from half an acre to 3 acres and then back to half an acre last year. Never tracked yields (too busy, and always exceeded my needed sales goals)

Hot sellers were "anything and everything".


cdevidal November 26, 2008 02:00 AM

I am quite seriously considering following in your footsteps here in Jacksonville, FL and I greatly appreciate your help here. At this stage I am learning and estimating, so your advice is exactly what I'm looking for.

1.) Approximately how much time per plant is spent pruning? Labor seems to take a big chunk out of profit on indeterminate toms.
2.) Sell any determinate varieties?
3.) Sell any hybrids?
4.) Did you have to send the toms to a washer/sorter/packer before selling?
5.) What was usually in your "sample tasting" box?
6.) Was it fancy-looking, like velvet-lined? ;-)
7.) What was usually in your "restaurant sales" box?

It occurred to me that the way to present out-of-season would be to greenhouse-grow a few of the better plants like Brandywine/Cherokee Purple.

Can't believe I am actually thinking about doing this as a business. As of a few weeks ago all I knew was how to work on computer servers. LOL It'll be a few years before I try to sell anything; next one to three years will be experimentin' time!

natural November 27, 2008 08:34 AM


[I]1.) Approximately how much time per plant is spent pruning? Labor seems to take a big chunk out of profit on indeterminate toms. [/I]No pruning. Trellising does take time. Time depends on your method of support. You'll find out :)
[I]2.) Sell any determinate varieties?[/I] I only sold early maturing determinites at farmers markets for early season sales (none to restaurants)
[I]3.) Sell any hybrids? [/I]No
[I]4.) Did you have to send the toms to a washer/sorter/packer before selling? [/I]No. We were not THAT big. We simply hand wiped each tomato with damp cloths.
[I]5.) What was usually in your "sample tasting" box?[/I]
[I]6.) Was it fancy-looking, like velvet-lined? ;-) [/I]No. We used the 1 layer 10 lb cardboard tomato boxes.
[I]7.) What was usually in your "restaurant sales" box? [/I]A selection of multiple colors (at least 6 colors minimum) from our "restaurant quality" variety list. This list usually included > 100 varieties.


natural November 27, 2008 08:42 AM


I missed one of your statements earlier.

I have not grown heirlooms in greenhouses before, so maybe someone else can answer that. However, I have seen some research regarding experiments and productivity results from trials of different varieties grown in greenhouses. Maybe you can research this. I can't recall for sure, but I do not think that Brandywine is a good choice for greenhouses.

Perhaps you can seek out other greenhouse tomato growers/ organic farmers in your specific area and find out what they grow. Florida Organic Growers would be a good network of folks if you are thinking of growing organically.


tomatoaddict November 27, 2008 09:16 AM

This was my first year selling to chef's and gourmet stores.
I would ditto everything Natural said.
My goal the first year was to take the best care possible of the chef's I had. I worked tirelessly for them and it paid off.
At the end of the season I got glowing reference letters from them to use to obtain new chefs. So not only did I retain the ones I had, but now I cherry pick the chef's I want as Natural said.
I also sell to gourmet stores and specialty markets. Next year I will be adding private tastings and supplying private dinner parties.
The only advice I could add is;
[B] be as professional as possible. [/B]
That might include investing in: [B]Nice thick business cards
A professional looking brochure or such and possibly some shirts with your chosen business name. [/B]
A good working knowledge of the tomatoes you are growing.[/B]
Most of the chef's appreciate knowing the specifics of certain tomatoes.

[B]A well done invoicing system. [/B]Organized !!!!
Also, I let the restaurants do the weighing. That way there is no chance of a problem with how many pounds you delivered.

also, if you are growing other things, try and bring things in for them to "work with"... I did this with my Mojito Mint and the Ghost peppers and other things. They love it and they get so spoiled by you that they wouldn't want anyone else to supply them.

Lastly, don't work with any restaurant that is not respecting whatever terms you give them. If you have a two week turn around for payment and you have a chef that isn't paying, dump them!!! I fired two of the best restaurants in town for this. Then I hear from the other chef's that these restaurants (same owner for both) are notoriously bad about paying their vendors.

It can be very lucrative. Takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication. :P

cdevidal November 28, 2008 09:13 AM

Bill, tomatoaddict, [B][U]VALUABLE[/U][/B] information. You guys are great! Bill, I sure would love to see your "restaurant quality" list but I know I'm probably asking too much ;-)

Tomatoaddict, you're right about professionalism. I was thinking nice company shirts, too.

I think I may have to send to a washer/packer because I'd heard that's the rules here in Florida. Ugh.

natural November 28, 2008 06:17 PM

Sounds like your business will be growing by leaps and bounds. Congrats!

Tomatoaddict added two great points: business cards and invoices.

For our[B] Business Cards[/B], we got lucky. Two professional FOOD photographers wanted to come do a photo shoot of our gardens. They arranged and shot a beautiful arrangement of our different color tomatoes. We took this photo and turned it into a professional quality (glossy photo and thick) business card.

They were not cheap, but this was THE BEST marketing tool I could have had. Whenever I meet someone (chef or otherwise), I hand them one of these cards and then they have an INSTANT visual of our product. I also discuss the varieties in the photo to show the potential customer that I am serious and knowledgable about the tomatoes.

I also agree with Tomatoaddict that an [B]INVOICING SYSTEM[/B] is also a must have.

Many chefs will not accept delivery without a PROPER invoice. Just go to Office Max etc. and pickup a pad of invoices. Some chefs pay on delivery, some don't. ALWAYS make sure that someone signs the invoice and you retain a copy.


As for my "Restaurant Quality Variety" list, we pretty much sold heirloom variety that looks and tastes good. No "special" varieties. But again, we did focus on the right color mix. You could start any of the varieties from Carolyn's book. :) I will actually be posting my complete list under the Seed forums in a few days. You can find it there soon.


cdevidal November 29, 2008 05:04 AM

You guys have given so much info, thank you very very much.

Dukerdawg November 29, 2008 08:52 AM

I second that! These posts have been more than I could have dreamed of. I will be going back and accessing and clipping and pasting a great deal over the next few months. Thanks again!


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