Tomato business booms
South Lake Tahoe – home of the gourmet tomato?
Well, sort of. It was 13 years ago when Tom Dohnke used to load his wares into an old Toyota station wagon and make his rounds in the Lake Tahoe area, looping from South Lake Tahoe, up the Nevada side to Incline Village.
His cargo was gourmet specialty tomatoes, which he and his wife, Mary, grew on their small farm in Placerville.
“Tahoe was our very first market,” said Mary Dohnke. “Tom made the trip to Tahoe two or three times a week, selling to many of the restaurants up there. Our customers included Cafe Fiore, Harrah’s … a whole bunch of them.”
That was the beginning of what has grown into a veritable tomato empire – 13 acres on the West Slope, near Diamond Springs, where specialty, or heirloom, tomatoes are grown like no place else in the world. These are not your – excuse the expression – garden variety tomatoes.
Come on by ToMary Gourmet Tomato Farm and you will find full-flavored, specialty tomato varieties such as Black Crimson, Banana Legs, Garden Peach and Caro Rich. Green Zebra, a small, round tomato with a sweet but zingy taste, is notable for its unusual skin, which is amber with green stripes. Purple Calabash is small, almost ruffled, and is the only purple tomato in the world.
“I always laugh when new customers stop by the farm,” Mary said. “They walk into the tent and ask, ‘Where are the tomatoes?’ They’re surrounded by tomatoes and don’t know it.”
But to the uninitiated, these tomatoes may look like onions or peaches or even carrots.
ToMary’s grows about 50 varieties of specialty tomatoes. They ship all over the United States, including New York, San Francisco and Florida (Disney World is a major customer).
Heirloom tomatoes are prized by gourmet restaurants for their unique flavors, colors and textures. They are a big hit in San Francisco restaurants, where the Dohnkes focused their marketing after realizing that Tahoe’s seasonal demand wasn’t turning enough profit.
It all began about 14 years ago, when the Dohnkes began growing gourmet tomatoes in their back yard because they were dissatisfied with the grocery store variety. They began giving them away to friends and family, and eventually decided to start a business. It wasn’t long before Tom (a California Highway Patrol officer) and Mary (a high school teacher) quit their respective jobs to become full-time farmers.
Although most of their business is wholesale, their farm is a popular stop for locals and tourists, with as many as 250 people per day coming in during the summer.
“We also do a good business in gift packs,” said Mary, who said that the fruit is a popular gift idea. “People come in here and are knocked out by the colors.”
In addition to being tasty and unique, these tomatoes are also pampered. While the common red variety (tomatoes) are usually trucked to their various destinations, ToMarys’ are always flown to market.
“Regular tomatoes are grown to be resilient, because they have to be trucked,” Mary said. “Ours are very fragile. They are picked ripe, and require special handling.”
The Sierra foothills are not a traditional place to grow tomatoes, but these are no ordinary tomatoes.
“There’s only one other grower out here that we know of,” Mary said. “And we’re the biggest specialty farm in the world I know of.”
There aren’t many gourmet tomato farms around because the profit margin is pretty slim, and the seeds are hard to come by. One cannot simply engineer one’s own heirloom tomatoes.
“The Goldie tomato, for instance, came west with the pioneers 150 years ago,” Mary said. “People still find them growing occasionally along the old wagon trails. Some of these seeds go back several hundred years, and different varieties are discovered in people’s back yards all the time.
“It’s a low profit margin for us. We do it because we love it, and we’re providing a unique product. We’ve found a little niche market and we’re doing pretty well.”
If you’re going:
ToMary Gourmet Tomatoes is located at 1589 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville. It is open from July 4 through Thanksgiving. Phone: (530) 622-8551. It can be found on the Web at Tomarytomatoes.com.
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