A recent trip through Trader Joe's was all it took for one college professor to validate his last 15 years of work.
Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, has devoted much of the last decade and a half to creating grape tomatoes varieties that appeal to shopper demand for more local, organic products with better flavor, color, quality and uniqueness. So it was during a walk through the retailer that Griffiths was reminded of the popular fruit that has languished in mediocrity in grocery stores in the U.S. and around the world for decades.
"I looked at one of the medley mixes and I really didn't think it looked very attractive at all based on size and just the general color mix they had in there," Griffiths told Food Dive. "Just looking at it just seemed like there is huge, huge opportunity for improvement in that whole market sector."
Griffiths would know. He's something of a tomato guru. In 2004, he started devoting a significant amount of research to tomatoes with the goal of taking colors and shapes present in heirloom varieties and transferring them through cross-breeding by hand to the more portable and snack-friendly cherry and grape sizes. After a decade of work, he narrowed his focus to seven or eight options before setting out to incorporate into those tomatoes traits such as shape, better yield, flavor, functionality and ability to last longer on the shelf and stand up to the challenges of transportation.
Griffiths further pruned the list before emerging with a slate of five space-age named tomatoes that he's optimistic will improve on the unattractive and boring variety packs he saw in the store. The new Galaxy Suite he developed are the yellow fingerling Starlight; the orange grape-shaped Sungrazer; the small, red, grape-shaped Comet; the marbled and striped Supernova; and the pear-shaped Midnight Pear. The branding, Griffiths said, is a nod to names that are increasingly being given to produce, including Cotton Candy grapes or the Cosmic Crisp apple.
The new tomatoes have garnered interest from retailers such as Wegmans, which tested them on its organic field last season, and a buyer representing U.K. grocer Marks & Spencer.
“They grew and produced well, and Phillip’s focus on developing varieties that produce high flavor, without jeopardizing productivity, really came through,” Jess Crabtree, growing manager at the Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard, said in a statement. “Our customers desire fresh, local produce that is both organically and sustainably grown, so any new varieties" produced locally and during an extended growing season are good for customers.
This project "wasn't initiated with profits in mind. It was initiated from the standpoint of what would be new and fun."
Associate professor of plant breeding and genetics, Cornell University
A Vermont-based seed supplier is selling Galaxy Suite seeds this year to farmers who may be interested in growing the tomatoes. If farmers and retailers like them, Griffiths said, Galaxy Suite tomato production could ramp up in 2020 and beyond with new additions. The tomatoes could eventually end up in farmers markets and higher-end retailers like Wegmans, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, targeting customers who are looking for variety and willing to pay a higher price.
"Ultimately, consumers are having a larger role in the development in the food industry of food products," he said. This project "wasn't initiated with profits in mind. It was initiated from the standpoint of what would be new and fun."
Griffiths said the Galaxy Suite tomatoes mirror many of the trends impacting consumers today. Shoppers are eager for new and interesting varieties they can try on the go. Griffiths said he has more than a dozen other options in the works, including baby beefsteak tomatoes and tomatoes shaped like chili peppers.
"If (these first five tomatoes) are successful, the development ... can be kept continually active by adding new varieties to it so people stay very interested in them over time," Griffiths said. "People are always interested with the new and latest things, so if you have a group that you can continue to keep feeding into it really gives a great opportunity to build a type of brand name."