ReGen Brands Recap #55

Monique Hypes & Marie Krane @ Tomato Bliss

Saving The Heirloom Tomato From Extinction

Marie Krane and Monique Hypes are the Co-Founders of Tomato Bliss. Tomato Bliss is on a mission to save the heirloom tomato from extinction with their line of heirloom tomato soups made with tomatoes grown on their certified Regenified™ farm in Southwest Michigan. 

Their soups / quick scratch sauces are available in four globally inspired flavors: Tuscan, Moroccan, Masala, and Chipotle, and are sold directly to consumers via Amazon, at farmer’s markets, and to a growing number of food service accounts through distributors like Gordon Food Service

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From Activism to CPG

For Marie, once an art activist, saving the heirloom tomato wasn’t just about preserving a beloved vegetable, it was a social experiment. What started as a community exchange program in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago – with Marie trading over 500 heirloom tomato seedlings for poems – morphed into a city-wide program and the eventual purchase of a degraded soybean farm in Galien, Michigan.

After Marie and her husband became tomato farmers, they earned a whole food processing license from Michigan State University and started producing sauces, salsas, broth, and soups. By 2019, the Krane’s became one of the few packaged food vendors to earn a spot in Chicago’s illustrious Green City Market

After some success at the farmers' market, Marie happened to be introduced to Monique, and she knew very quickly she had found her new Co-Founder and CEO. 

Saving Heirlooms from Extinction

You've never truly enjoyed a tomato until you tasted an heirloom tomato. Sadly, like so many other mass-produced commodities, the tomato has been intensely overbred for uniformity and durability instead of flavor and nutrition. Of the 90% of tomatoes in production (most grown year-round hydroponically), less than 25 seeds are used. (For more insights on the history of tomatoes, check out The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzke.)

Today, Marie's home farm which is the main sourcing partner for Tomato Bliss, grows about 170 varieties of heirloom tomatoes a year. They’re constantly experimenting with different species, focusing on yield and flavor but also the power of biodiversity when it comes to fighting disease and pests (eliminating the need for herbicides and pesticides). 

“Biodiversity is really our North Star. And how do we get many types of varieties of heirloom tomatoes and specialty tomatoes into commercial production and into products that we consume.” – Monique

The Inherent Values of “Lazy Person” Farming

Marie asserts she didn’t come into this project as a farmer. When the Krane’s first bought their farm (“60 acres in the middle of Monsanto monocrops”), they required a drill to plant their first seeds. After Marie dug into permaculture and Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic nine-month course, things started to look a lot different:

  • Between the walnut and Pawpaw trees, shrubs and perennials, their annual tomatoes are thriving amidst the biodiversity. 
  • Rock pits store excess water, guarding against frequent flooding in their region. They’re also using drip irrigation with minimal water, and have experimented with dry-growing tomatoes.
  • Their operation is 100% no-till with no digging except to plant seedlings.
  • Walking on the fields is designated to paths only, minimizing any unnecessary pressure on the soil.
  • They’re partnering with like-minded, independent farmers, providing a guaranteed market and revenue for their heirloom tomatoes.

“As a consequence of this kind of lazy person's approach, the earth has absolutely healed itself. The amount of birds that we have is astonishing. It's a beautiful, beautiful place. We can't really take responsibility for it because the earth has done this.” – Marie

As a result, their farm is more profitable and delivers flavor and nutrient density. The operation is vertically integrated, locally, from the seeds to farming to their own production facility. This enables them to care for the delicate tomatoes and extend their shelf life through thoughtfully processed products. For them, going CPG – taking a seasonal product and turning it into a product that can be sold at any time, everywhere  –  is what’s made their heirloom tomatoes work.

As for certification, they’ve chosen to work with Regenified™ given its emphasis on biodiversity and pathway that supports incremental progress. For Tomato Bliss and their partner farmers, becoming a certified regenerative product (on top of the existing farm certification) is a bigger hurdle and one they hop to accomplish in the future.

“If we can get a commercial tomato farmer who grows one type of tomato to go to two types of tomatoes, that would be a step in the right direction. I can't imagine that we'd ever have a hard line that wouldn't support any improvement. Farming is an art, it’s not always a perfect science. So we really do try to focus on progress over perfection. And how can we make incremental steps to continue to build a food supply chain that works? And when I say works, there are so many components, right, one that's profitable, and one that's aligned with our mission for people and planet. And so we're working towards that North Star every day.” – Monique 

Fueling Growth, Differently

As a small but mighty team trying to achieve their mission and maintain capital efficiency, they’ve put their primary focus on food service. Through the Food Foundry accelerator program, they established a relationship with Gordon Food Service, getting support in marketing and sales, and lots of exposure within their distribution centers.

They’ve also capitalized on the sector’s price elasticity, efficient supply chains, faster path to scale, and larger volumes. And, it turns out, their product resonates for some very interesting reasons:

  • Tomato Bliss aligns with university ESG mandates, and delivers a home run for sports teams focused on nutrition.
  • For healthcare, Tomato Bliss provides a convenient, tasty option that’s low in sodium, high in vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Also, chefs love it because it’s easy to use, incredibly versatile as a scratch ingredient, and tastes amazing.

Unfortunately, their path to retail has been less clear. As a shelf-stable, jarred product housed in the center aisles, it’s hard to get the attention of their target shopper who typical spends most of their time in the periphery of the store. 

“My real dream is to be able to cross-merchandise in the produce department. The center grocery store has unbelievable potential to be revisited, to be fresh and have a real attention to ingredients and the sourcing of those ingredients and the climate impact. We’ve developed an innovation that allows us to extend the shelf life of fresh roasted heirloom tomatoes so that you can enjoy heirloom tomatoes all year round… Grocery stores need a new category with the freshness of the produce aisle and the convenience of the inner market. A category where it's clean fresh food in a self-stable product.” – Monique

50% Market Share for Regen

For the gals at Tomato Bliss, they want to see a lot more of what they’re doing, but at a bigger scale: Building sustainable supply chains in a way that’s better for the planet and people, and profitable. As a farmer, Marie believes the farmers are ready - we just need to give them a market that makes it worthwhile.

“A lot of people said you're crazy trying to build a national brand without industrial food as the main ingredient. But the supply chain has proven to be robust. We had hoped for 180,000 lbs this year and we ended up at 300,000 lbs. That’s a lot of tomatoes and a clear path to 2 million lbs within five years. We can build the supply chain. We are going to convert mono-cultivated tomato fields to biodiverse tomato fields.” – Marie

You can check out the full episode with Monique Hypes & Marie Krane @ Tomato Bliss HERE.

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This ReGen Recap was produced with support from Kristina Tober