Wendy’s Embraces Vine-ripened Tomatoes
Inside a tomato greenhouse.
Courtesy of Wendy's
Will the next next battle in the QSR freshness war be over tomatoes? If it is, Wendy’s has quite a lead on the rest of the industry.
The company has announced plans to use 100 percent vine-ripened, greenhouse-grown tomatoes by sometime in 2019. Currently, 25 percent of tomatoes used at the 6,200 North American Wendy’s locations are vine-ripened.
Why? Chief Communications Officer and the leader of Wendy’s quality assurance team, Liliana Esposito, laid it out in a blog post. The primary reason is, of course, flavor. Vine-ripened tomatoes just taste better.
“We believe that, and through our taste testing with consumers, that the longer it stays on the vine the better it tastes,” Esposito told Franchise Times.
But there are a handful of other benefits including an easier supply chain, more control of the product quality and more sustainable farming. All great things, but the company saw the vine-ripened light by happenstance.
“What started us down this path was really supply disruption. Quite a few years ago, the whole industry was impacted by an unusually timed freeze both in Florida and Mexico, that really pushed us into a crisis situation,” said Esposito. “We were only serving tomato on demand because there was such a shortage of supply.”
During that time, the company was forced to buy vine-ripened tomatoes, some of which were grown in greenhouses. They tasted better than the typical commodity tomato. But the brand couldn’t just swap in the better tomatoes; there just weren’t enough greenhouse tomato farms out there.
“It’s taken us several years to now turn this into our exclusive sourcing approach,” said Esposito. “It was not an easy thing to do nor did it happen overnight.”
Some suppliers added greenhouses but the majority of greenhouse growers are new suppliers to the brand. When the plan is fully ripened, Wendy’s will source all tomatoes from 12 farms across North America. That’s a major benefit for Esposito, who spends a lot of time on the road visiting farms, now it’s just 12 stops for the audits and meetings with suppliers.
Each market will get tomatoes from the closest of those suppliers. It’s not exactly local, but it will be a year-round, consistent supply from within the region. That saves on travel costs and the emissions typically seen from cross-continent tomato supply chains.
As for the cost, Esposito said that shouldn’t change for anyone, consumers or franchisees.
“Because we purchase whole tomatoes and hand slice in our restaurants, we’ve always been a purchaser of more premium tomatoes than the base model, if you will,” said Esposito. “So it wasn’t going form low quality to high quality.”
There’s also an “additional layer confidence” when it comes to food safety because of the control greenhouses offer.
“There are two things you can never control outdoors, one is the weather and one is the environment. So moving our growing indoors allows us to have a more controlled environment. You’re eliminating those two risks,” said Esposito.
It’s clear from the sales around McDonald’s fresh burger and the surge of health-forward concepts that consumers want fresher food that tastes better.
“They’re on the go and looking for convenience, affordability and options, but they want quality and they want to know the story about it,” said Esposito. “We think this is an area we’ve always been a leader in, but we’re always trying to raise our own standards.”