YOU WANT A BIG PROJECT?" AN ACquaintance was saying to Karakian "Kutty" Bedrosian. "Make a winter tomato taste like a summer tomato. That's big."
An unlikely idea for a business, perhaps, but Bedrosian was hardly a stranger to unlikely ventures. At Lever Brothers Co. he had helped create the first patented fabric softener for home driers. At Whirlpool Corp. he had developed a system for keeping apples fresh from one picking season to the next. Next, he began tinkering with tomatoes. By 1982 he had the product he wanted and set up his company to market it.
You say tomato? Natural Pak Produce Inc., Bedrosian's company, says TomAHto. The trademarked spelling reflects half of the founder's business plan, which is to brandname the commodity in the manner of Chiquita Brand bananas. The other half -- the part that's supposed to make a difference in the taste -- is a patented packaging system that keeps the fruit from spoiling without refrigeration. It's the refrigeration, says Bedrosian, that makes ordinary winter tomatoes mealy in texture and insipid in flavor.
Natural Pak has licensed its system to nine tomato repackers, and TomAhtoes are now on the shelves of 50 supermarket chains in 28 states. Consumer response, according to a sampling of produce managers for a Philadelphia chain, has been mixed. TomAHtoes are pricey -- $1.49 to $1.69 for a four-pack was a typical range last summer -- and not many shoppers choose them over fresh New Jeresy summer tomatoes. In the wintertime, they move pretty well.
That may be enough for Natural Pak. The company expects more than $12 million in licensing fees this year, up from $1.2 million last year, and Bedrosian claims it will wind up in the black for the first time. If it does, he plans to begin a consumer ad campaign and expand his distribution area. No other company, Bedrosian points out, holds a sizable percentage of the fresh-tomato market. And that fact alone, he figures, makes it ripe for the picking.