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The Honorable Ubiquitous Tomato

The award-winning Kawamata Farms is a growing business

On Nov. 2, 2002, in the upcountry cool of Waimea, a coterie of chefs and food experts sat down for the seventh annual Big Island Tomato Tasting. Sam Choy was there as was Peter Merriman, who loves tomatoes so much that he has a private growing arrangement with two local farmers. The group savored samplings in all shapes, sizes and colors offered by 30 separate growers from around the Islands. At the end of the day, the verdict came in. The best tomato of the bunch? A beefsteak variety from Kawamata Farms’ seven acres of tomatoes in nearby Kamuela.

Red Vines: Garren Kawamata (pictured) runs Kawamata Farms with his father, Raymond. The family-owned business was started more than 30 years ago by his grandfather, Naoji Kawamata. Photo courtesy: Karen Jones

Call it the ultimate honor for the ubiquitous tomato. You can find Kawamata products in Safeway, Star Markets and Foodland. You can find them on the menu at the Halekulani and at a handful of other high-end restaurants. You can find them in gourmet food shops, such as Foodland-subsidiary R. Field. In short, they’re everywhere. And they are not cheap, going for $3 per pound to $4 per pound at retail and fetching premium prices in salads that have made Kawamata Farms a highly profitable family business.

The Kawamata success story is a textbook treatise on how local farmers can make it big. The first step? Get a good product and produce it reliably.

Like a number of other quality, local tomato growers, the Kawamatas decided several years ago to use hydroponic methods and eschew the volcanic soils. Hydroponics work well in Hawaii, where land is expensive: farmers can grow vegetable crops vertically, with plants stretching well above ground; that, in turn, extends each plant’s usable growing life by seven months or so.

An added bonus: the Kawamatas do not have to worry about soil-borne pathogens, heavy rains or maintaining a delicate nutrient balance. Computerized systems provide water and nutrients to the tomato plants, which grow on cinder rock walls designed to support vines that can stretch to 30 feet when extended.

“Any type of soil is very difficult to grow in because of the control factor. In hydroponics you have more control,” says Garren Kawamata, co-owner of Kawamata Farms. Control means consistency. That’s key to producing the 20,000 pounds of tomatoes that Kawamata sends to stores and restaurants each week.

Consistency alone is hardly enough. Serendipity helps, too. In the summer of 1999, the Pearl Harbor Commissary went to the Big Island looking for local growers to fill its commissary. The Kawamatas jumped at the chance and quickly located a wholesaler on Oahu to handle shipments and distribution. The connection with Yamauchi Produce brought the Kawamatas to the attention of other people on Oahu. Once they had proven they could deliver the goods, other supermarkets soon became interested. By 2001, Kawamata tomatoes could be found in Star Markets, Safeway and Foodland. Equally important, the Kawamatas had an established track record and contacts in the wholesaler community.

Photo courtesy: Hawaii Department of Agriculture

Putting products in stores is no guarantee that shoppers will buy them. The Kawamatas also had to price their product just right. Clearly, it was a premium product and could draw a higher price. “We looked at what other vine-ripened growers were charging, and we wanted to be around the same ballpark figure. But we wanted to be sure the consumer would be able to afford our tomatoes at the supermarket level,” Kawamata says. They settled on prices that were slightly below the per-pound cost of imported Dutch and other vine-ripened tomatoes and on par with those of organic tomatoes at specialty stores.

The Kawamatas are not averse to using loss-leader sales to draw interest to their tomatoes. “I believe that when the price is lower, people see the product, buy it and try it. Then the next week, the price will be back up to the normal price. That drives up the demand,” Garren explains.

Then there is the marketing. For starters, the Kawamatas made sure their brand was clear. “We put a sticker on every tomato that says it’s ours,” Garren says. For a while, the company was spending 3 percent to 4 percent of its gross revenues on marketing. That included a television commercial running through August 2002 on local stations. At the same time, the Kawamatas maintain a high profile on the Big Island, generously giving away their tomatoes for charity events and participating in festivals, such as the Big Island Festival and the Taste of Hawaii Range. (They were scheduled to host a luncheon at their farm in November 2002 for attendees of the posh Mauna Kea Winter Wine Escape, but the event was canceled.)

“A lot of those events have different chefs, and they would say, ‘How can I get your tomatoes in my restaurant?’” Garren says. More restaurants serving Kawamata tomatoes also results in more exposure and retail interest, a virtuous circle for Garren and his father, Raymond, and a testament to the fruits of hard labor inherent in producing consistent products, placing them in stores, pricing them correctly and finally marketing them to successfully move them.

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