Fresh From the Vine
Tony White’s locally grown tomatoes are the not-so-secret ingredients in many St. Louis chefs’ acclaimed dishes.
“I’ve got everything in here,” Tony White says as he crouches in the back of his delivery van that’s filled to the ceiling with crates of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes. The aroma wafting outward smells like a garden in the summer, just after a light rain. It’s earthy and a little pungent — a fragrance that stands out among the office buildings and clothing shops in Sunset Hills, Missouri.
“I’ve got heirlooms, I’ve got cherries, I’ve got what I call Flavor Bombs,” White calls from among the produce to Tyler Layton, executive chef at Twisted Tree Steakhouse. “Here, you definitely need to try one of these.” He climbs out of the van, juggling tomatoes of every color and size and holding out one of the Flavor Bombs. A satisfying bite reveals that he’s right — this tomato’s taste is zesty, full and powerful.
His faith in the fruit justified as always, White smiles and pops a few yellow grape tomatoes into his mouth. Tony’s Family Farms has come through once again.
Through Tony’s Family Farms, White pulls together thousands of acres of farms throughout the St. Louis region to produce vegetables that serve as the centerpieces of some of the best dishes at local restaurants. St. Louis increasingly is being recognized as an essential hub for agriculture-related business, thanks to its large concentration of plant science, animal health, bioscience and ag-tech innovators in the area as well as the city’s central location for distributing throughout the nation.
But traditional farming still plays a big role in the region’s economy along with its burgeoning culinary notoriety, and that intersection is where Tony’s Family Farms comes in. By developing partnerships with local farms and cultivating plenty of produce on his own land, White provides on-the-vine vegetables that celebrated chefs build entire meals around and can’t get anywhere else.
White — or “Tony Tomato,” as many now call him — says he’s known as much for the close relationships he’s forged with area restaurateurs as he is for his flavorful tomatoes, mushrooms, watermelons, eggplants, peppers and microgreens. When White pulls his delivery van up to the kitchens at Twisted Tree Steakhouse, The Benevolent King, Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria and more, the chefs experience a personal farmers’ market. Sure, White brings what the chefs had previously requested, but he also surprises them with varieties that inspire them to take dinner in new directions. They hand pick exactly what they need right from his van, tasting as they go, finding just the right vegetables to feature in their salads, stews and sauces.
White explains how Ben Poremba, chef-restaurateur of The Benevolent King, Elaia, Olio and others, operates when the van arrives.
“He sends me a text, ‘Hey, can you come by? I need some tomatoes.’ And he’ll come out to the van and go, ‘I want that flat, I want that flat, I want that flat,’” White explains, his finger jabbing the air at imaginary crates of tomatoes. “So what’s he doing? He’s taking a personal approach to selecting the produce. And we have enough on there that you always have choices.”
But White’s tomatoes aren’t the kind that chefs thoughtlessly toss onto hundreds of assembly-line burgers each day. These are star attractions — flavorful key ingredients that set the tone for the rest of a thoughtful dish. And what these renowned chefs are doing with the produce directly affects the growing attention that St. Louis’s culinary scene has attracted.
“The chefs want to be challenged,” White says. “St. Louis is a food scene. We’re not as large as Chicago or San Francisco or L.A., but I guarantee you don’t have to look very far to find some very good restaurants in this marketplace. And I know that we’re doing our part to provide them with the opportunity to purchase ingredients that are fantastic.”
Planting An Idea
Cultivating fresh food isn’t new for White. Long before he obtained his first local field in 2012, White grew up around a cornucopia of produce in California’s farm-rich Central Valley.
“It was everywhere. My grandfather had huge gardens, my father had huge gardens, and when I was 12 years old, I had a pretty substantial garden as well,” he says. “Every city that I lived in, all my homes either had fruit trees or grape vineyards and some type of garden, because there’s just nothing better than fresh food. You can definitely tell the difference when something’s been imported or you’re eating local.”
White eventually moved to St. Louis and met a retired farmer named James Fortune, who owned property in the fertile Creve Coeur Bottoms area. Fortune offered White a small field in which to try his hand at farming, and after some trial and error, White was overflowing with produce. Not sure what to do with all of it, he recruited family and friends to create a canning club.
“My partner at the time said, ‘Next year if we can’t eat these tomatoes or any of this produce within a three-day period, don’t bring it here. Go across the street and sell it,’” laughs White.
That business across the street was Marcella’s Mia Sorella in Ballwin, one of the top Italian restaurants in the area. When White approached owner Steve Komorek, the restaurateur reportedly responded, “I’ll buy every tomato you produce if you pick it at the peak of perfection.”
Up for the challenge, White later arrived at Mia Sorella with 300 products including heirloom tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, tomatillos and zucchini. He says that the owners of the restaurant next door also came out to look, sparking a bidding war over White’s produce.
That’s when White knew he was onto something.
“I said, well, if these two businesses are this aggressively trying to purchase this product, we may be missing something here in the community,” he says.
White began taking produce to chefs at other fine restaurants in the area, building a network of customers including Annie Gunn’s and EdgeWild Bistro and watching what began as a hobby quickly grow month by month. With word of his tomatoes spreading throughout the restaurant community in the city as well as in St. Louis County and St. Charles County, White left his corporate job to focus on Tony’s Family Farms full time.
Striving For Freshness
Growing great produce in the summer is one thing, but doing so during the long Midwest winters is another; the lack of fresh options is why so many chefs traditionally rely on importing produce from warmer regions. But White saw an opportunity to corner the local vegetable market in all seasons by bringing more farmers into the ecosystem.
In order to continue supplying chefs with the freshest, highest-quality produce year-round, White began partnering with growers in the region who were putting acres and acres of soil under glasshouses, forming a network of specialty producers who could overcome the winter’s challenges. By matching up the specialty varieties that chefs wanted with what the farmers had in abundance, White set himself apart from other growers and became the ultimate vegetable connection.
“I have a family that grows shishito peppers for me. I have a family that grows cherry tomatoes for me. I have a family that grows corn,” White says. “That’s what my customers are looking for.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship that serves both White and the restaurants while keeping money with farmers in the region and offering quality, locally-grown food to diners. Tony’s Family Farms also recently began delivering fresh produce to offices as part of corporate wellness programs, and White receives frequent shout-outs on social media from chefs enjoying the veggies.
For “Tony Tomato,” it always comes back to cultivating in-person relationships with his growing roster of 150 local chefs and suppliers.
“It puts the pressure on you to make sure that you maintain those standards because they want to look good and I want them to look good,” White says.
“Could I do this in New York? Logistically, no, because it’s just too hard to get around,” he continues. “There are just so many things that are right about this area for me as an entrepreneur.”