Heirloom Tomatoes (Issue 905)

In which we are reminded about the importance and power of education in differentiation and client engagement.

Saturday morning grocery run. I went to Russo’s, a well-known west-of-Boston source for high quality fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, pastries, and cheese. The main focus for the visit was fruit – strawberries and blueberries, specifically.

While browsing, I noticed a significant display of heirloom tomatoes to the left of which were a rack of tomatoes labeled “hot house.” I wandered around for a few minutes and then asked one of the Russo’s team members, “What’s the difference between heirloom tomatoes and the hot house tomatoes? Would I notice a difference in taste?”

He smiled and repeated my tomato-rookie question softly, “What’s the difference between heirloom tomatoes and hot house?”

“Well,” he said. “Heirloom tomatoes were where they all started, those were the original breeds…But you asked about the difference in taste.”

So, he stepped around me to the rack of heirloom tomatoes and asked me, “Do you care what color they are?” I didn’t.

He grabbed a greenish looking one, snagged a sheet of paper towel, and put the tomato down on a rack. He passed me, again, and pulled a small, bright red tomato off a cluster of tomatoes on a vine. “These are called Hasty Tom tomatoes. They are grown in Maine. He can’t grow them fast enough. We order a pallet and we get a couple of boxes.”

Then he turned again and pulled a yellow tomato from another rack.

He pulled a knife out of his pocket, cut the Hasty Tom by half. “Here…taste this.” It was sweet and crisp. Amazing!

He cut a slice out of the green heirloom tomato. “What do you think of this?”, he asked. It was a bit tart, less sweet.

He cut a slice off the yellow tomato and handed it to me. “What do you think of this?” It was a little bland.

“The tomatoes get a lot less acidic when you move away from the red ones,” he said. “Yellow is less acidic than red…. These, over here, are the best for sandwiches. You wouldn’t use them for cooking. For cooking, you’d best use some of those.”

He put away his knife and smiled. “Would you like to take the cut ones home with you?”

I nodded. He pulled out a plastic bag and I put the half-cut tomatoes into the bag. “Tell them at the register they are a gift.”

On my way to the check-out register, I grabbed a big cluster of the Hasty Tom tomatoes, eager to get them home and have a few. They hadn’t been on the list this morning but they were going home with me now, accompanying the berries that had been my primary objective for the visit.

I remember reading an article in which a Wegmans grocery store manager responded to a question about differentiation. He said, “How do we differentiate ourselves? If we can sell products that require knowledge in terms of how you use them, that’s our strategy. Anything that requires knowledge and service gives us a reason to be.”

I hadn’t thought of tomatoes as a “product that requires knowledge in terms of how you use them” and, at Russo’s this morning, I got a seven-minute, narrated “taste test” demo. Now I know.

It was a great experience. I’ll go back. I think I’ll try the cheese guys next.

Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees through better sales strategies and execution. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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