Pretty-in-pink tomatoes

World map - focus on Bulgaria

METRO Bulgaria

Lyubomir Mlekanov cultivates the pink tomato, an old Bulgarian variety with authentic taste. His customer is the wholesale store in Plovdiv, one of the first that METRO opened in Bulgaria 20 years ago. The programme in which he participates is based on a direct partnership between METRO and small farmers like him. They sell their fruits and vegetables to the METRO stores in their region at fair prices, without intermediaries – fresh from the field to the shelf. In this way METRO Bulgaria contributes to the growth of the local economy and brings traditional cuisine closer to customers in the food service industry again. To this end METRO manager Ivan Raynov travelled nearly 40,000 kilometres across the country.

Lyubomir Mlekanov’s day begins long before the other residents of his village have their first cup of coffee. The mid-June sun rises early in Malo Konare, in the Pazardzhik Province of southern Bulgaria, but Lyubomir gets up even earlier. At 5.30 a.m. he checks the drip irrigation for his tomatoes in the pink greenhouse. At the bottom of the plants, the first tomatoes, still green, have begun to form and acquire a colour, and on the stem, the yellow leaves  of new fruits are already appearing. 25 June is approaching, a big day for the 41-year-old man. It is the day on which he will deliver the first shipment of a tonne and a half of ripe tomatoes to the METRO store in Plovdiv.

The wholesale store is only 20 kilometres away, but the road Lyubomir Mlekanov has had to travel to make his delivery in this first season was long – it started more than a year ago, in the spring of 2018, when he first met the METRO Bulgaria team that handles purchasing of fruit and vegetables for the country’s 11 wholesale stores and that has worked on the ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ project for almost 2 years.

Farmer Lyubomir Mlekanov in his 'pink tomato' greenhouse

Farmer Lyubomir Mlekanov in his 'pink tomato' greenhouse

Ivan Raynov showing the rose tomatoes in store

Ivan Raynov showing the rose tomatoes in the METRO store

It is a novel procurement model that is based on a direct partnership with Bulgarian small farmers such as Lyubomir Mlekanov. They sell their products to METRO stores in their region without intermediaries. With this initiative METRO Bulgaria responded primarily to the needs of its customers in the food service industry. ‘Our aim is to become a link between the local producers of Bulgarian fruits and vegetables and their professional customers in the hotel and restaurant business,’ says Ivan Raynov, who manages the product category of fruit and vegetables at METRO Bulgaria.

What makes the model special is that the products are delivered straight from the field to the nearest store. ‘Our goods arrive fresh because only a few hours have elapsed between pickup and arrival at the store,’ says the 30-year-old. This means: the tomatoes from Lyubomir Mlekanov’s farm do not travel hundreds of kilometres and do not pass through various warehouses and trucks for days, the way other tomatoes do. They reach the shelf within 60 minutes. ‘That’s why we can offer products in our assortment that have a very short life but incomparable taste – for example, the pink tomato, which is super aromatic.’

The project began in 2017 and became known internally as the ‘Fruit & Veg Revolution ’ at METRO Bulgaria. Preparations were intensive. ‘During the first 6 months we were constantly on the road. We travelled at least 40,000 kilometres, as much as the Earth’s circumference,’ Ivan Raynov recalls. He and his team criss-crossed the country, and meetings with small producers followed one after the other. The trip was organised with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and local organisations of farmers from the different regions. ‘There was a song rolling in my mind; one by Willie Nelson,’ the METRO manager says. ‘On the road again.’

Today METRO Bulgaria’s range of fruits and vegetables includes more than 300 kinds of local products, supplied by over 150 small farmers across the country. In the last year, over 4,300 tonnes of fruits and vegetables were sold, including Bulgarian varieties – from tomatoes and cucumbers to onions and peppers through to cabbage, beans and many others. The selection of regional fruits is just as impressive.

The products are offered according to a fixed schedule, which is determined by the time the farm products are grown and harvested during the season. ‘Garlic is on the shelves in March and April, and radishes too. Onions arrive in early March. Greenhouse production of cucumbers begins in February, and of cabbage in April. We start selling strawberries in the same month, and potatoes and courgettes follow in May. The pink tomato is available from June until late September.’

METRO Bulgaria supplies all key customer groups, including the independent traders (Traders) as well as service providers and other independent market participants (SCOs). The most important engine for the growth and successful development of the company with its over 2,200 employees, however, are the hotels, restaurants and catering businesses (HoReCa). The hotel and food service industry is expanding fast, especially in the big cities and tourist centres along the Black Sea coast and the regions that are popular amongst hikers and skiers, in the Pirin, Rila, Stara Planina  and Rhodope mountains.

Ivan Raynov travels across Bulgaria to meet local farmers

Ivan Raynov (right) traveled across Bulgaria to meet local farmers

METRO Bulgaria offers HoReCa customers not just products but also a range of solutions to advance their business. The fruit and vegetable range is designed in such a way that it contains a variety of types to satisfy any culinary desire. Ivan Raynov and his team sell not just one type of tomato. They offer one tomato variety for salads, another one for sauce, another one for pizza, one for home cooking, one for barbecue, one for canning and even one for decoration purposes. They all have in common an authentic taste which brings the restaurateurs and their guests closer to traditional Bulgarian cuisine again. Many consider this to be the unique feature of METRO Bulgaria in comparison to other traders.

‘We are confident in what we offer, because we draw on the knowledge of experts in breeding varieties of sorts and seeds,’ explains the METRO manager. They include scientists from the Maritsa Vegetable Crops Research Institute and from the Agriculture University in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city after Sofia, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. But advice from leading Bulgarian chefs contributes as well. ‘Our suppliers also go through training and professional consultation from agronomists to make sure that we always achieve the best quality,’ says Ivan Raynov.

The region offers countless types of meat, cheese and vegetables

METRO Bulgaria offers different tomatoes for salads, sauces, pizza, home cooking, barbecue, canned food and even for decoration purposes

Plovdiv, 20 April: head chef Andrey Stoilov, President of the Bulgarian Association of Professional Chefs, is onstage to award the winners of the biggest contest for professional chefs in Bulgaria. For over a decade, METRO Bulgaria has been the main sponsor of the event, organising a sort of local store where the chefs of the competing culinary teams can select the products and ingredients for their dishes, among them many of METRO’s own brands as well as regional food products. ‘METRO has always supported me and has been a reliable partner for me and my colleagues, all of them restaurant owners and hoteliers. “Nurtured with care in Bulgaria” is an initiative that contributes to our success,’ says the head chef of Marinela, one of the country’s largest hotels. He appreciates the quality and taste of local products, which as far as he is concerned make all the difference in the kitchen and on the plates. ‘That’s why I prefer to work with Bulgarian products – and I know that I can count on METRO for this.’

Award ceremony at the Culinary Cup in Bulgaria

Award ceremony at the Culinary Cup in Bulgaria

Today, some 6,000 Bulgarian restaurants trust METRO when it comes to meeting their customers’ wishes for delicious and fresh fruits and vegetables from Bulgaria. In its collaboration with the small farmers, METRO in turn relies on the advice and expertise of the Maritsa  Vegetable Crops Research Institute. ‘Our institute offers farmers in the “Nurtured with care in Bulgaria” programme first-rate varieties that have good yields and are resistant to many diseases,’ says Prof. Daniela Ganeva, Director of Maritsa. Thanks to the joint programme, people in Bulgaria can taste new varieties of vegetable crops from Bulgaria as well as old ones that are returning to the fields.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has also supported ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ from the start. ‘The METRO initiative coincides with our policy to establish a dialogue between the representatives of modern trade and the farming community,’ says Slavi Kralev, who is in charge of market measures and producer organisations at the ministry. She explains that METRO gets access to products from the region and Bulgarian small farmers are guaranteed to have a customer who buys their harvest.

Daniela Ganeva, Professor and MARITSA Director

Daniela Ganeva, Professor and MARITSA Director (right)

Thanks to the direct partnership, METRO supports the sustainable development of small agricultural businesses, thus contributing to the growth of the local economy. Another positive side effect is that this eliminates the need for intermediaries, who often operate in a grey area, buying the farmers’ products at an extremely low price to sell them to the big chains with high profit.

This is particularly important for small farmers such as Lyubomir Mlekanov, who fills 3 greenhouses with his pink tomatoes. ‘METRO guarantees a market and has made a long-term commitment. This allows me to plan my development a few years ahead,’ he explains. To be really successful, the smallholder says, he has to more than triple his acreage. ‘Now I can tackle this task, because I know that METRO will buy my produce at a competitive price, does not return the already purchased goods, provides me with packaging and advice from agronomists and scientific institutes, and makes every effort to help me achieve the goals I have set.’

After more than 20 years as a construction worker in Spain, Portugal and the UK, today Lyubomir Mlekanov can make his living doing what he enjoys. He has the chance to manage his own business, make decisions by himself and take care of his family. To this end he has replaced his flat in the neighbouring town of Pazardzhik with a house in the village of Malo Konare in order to be near the farm. It is a family business, so his wife helps him round the clock. From late June to early October, together with 3 seasonal workers, they have to provide 35 tonnes of pink tomatoes for the 2 METRO stores in Plovdiv. ‘We are helping METRO in its efforts to export our pink tomatoes abroad,’ Lyubomir says with pride. For example to the UK and Austria.

Farmer Lyubomir Mlekanov in his 'pink tomato' greenhouse

METRO guarantees a market and has made a long-term commitment. This allows me to plan my development a few years ahead.

Lyubomir Mlekanov

A while ago METRO expanded ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ by launching the ‘Ugly but tasty’ initiative. Its goal is to persuade consumers to buy fruits and vegetables which do not meet the customary standards for size, colour and shape but are still just as delicious and perfectly safe to eat. Every year farmers in Bulgaria fail to sell 20% of their fruit and vegetable production due to ‘cosmetic blemishes’. About one third of certain foods is discarded throughout the world, while almost one billion people are starving.

‘The programme aims to reduce the part of the farmers’ harvest which they were unable to sell previously,’ said Dobrina Marcheva, who is responsible for quality and safety standards at METRO Bulgaria. Supply of ‘ugly but tasty’ fruits and vegetables depends on the harvest of the local farmers with whom METRO cooperates. At the start of the programme, these imperfect products were available in stores in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Blagoevgrad. This year, METRO customers in all 11 stores in Bulgaria can fill a paper bag bearing the inscription ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ for less than 70 cents with fruits and vegetables that may not look appealing but are in no way inferior to ‘impeccable’ products. All goods have the same item number, so everything that goes into the bag is billed at the same price.

Motive of the "One of 8" foundation against breast cancer

Pretty, tasty and helpful - the 'pink tomato' as motif of the "One of 8" foundation against breast cancer

The paper bags also help METRO Bulgaria in the battle against the mounting quantity of plastic waste – which has long since been a global environmental problem. Additionally, from 2018 METRO has included in ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ a special charity cause: the ‘One in 8’ foundation of the Bulgarian TV host Nana Gladwish. The background: studies show that about 1 in 8 women develops breast cancer during her life.

Last year, METRO dedicated 5% of its sales of pink tomatoes to ‘One in 8’. The foundation provides support to women with breast cancer and their relatives, for instance in the form of free psychological and legal counselling. The METRO charity campaign will continue this year with the start of the sale of the pink tomato, this very special variety among Bulgarian tomatoes.

There will also be a celebration in the name of the tomato. On 15 September, METRO Bulgaria will be holding its Pink Tomato Fest in the centre of Sofia for the third year in a row. Regional farmers participating in ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ can present their best pink tomato specimens at a farmer’s market. The festival provides professional chefs and lovers of good food with the opportunity to prepare and taste Bulgarian dishes with all sorts of local products such as the characteristic white and yellow cheeses offered by METRO. This will be accompanied by a full day of music and dancing on the stage in the Knyazheska Garden.

Lyubomir Mlekanov has had his own stand at the festival in the past – and definitely wants to participate again this year. But until then he first will have to focus on what is most important to him: bringing his pink tomatoes straight from the field to the METRO store in Plovdiv – making not only the restaurateurs in Bulgaria happy but also himself.

'Pink Tomato' festival in Sofia

Pink Tomato Fest in the centre of Sofia

METRO Bulgaria

  • 11 wholesale stores, 1 FSD depot in Sofia
  • 2,230 employees
  • More than 400,000 customers
  • About 40,000 food and non-food products
  • Delivery business with a share of revenues of about 14%
  • More than 400 local farmers deliver their products directly to 11 METRO stores as part of the ‘Nurtured with care in Bulgaria’ programme

 

Bulgaria

  • 7 million inhabitants
  • Agriculture contributed 4.3% to the GDP in 2017
  • Plant production dominates with a share of 60%

Source: Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, GTAI
Status: July 2019

Nicolai Borukov has been living in the city Plovdiv for 26 years.

Local, Seasonal and Fresh – Bulgarian Cuisine

20 years ago, METRO opened one of its first stores in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Since then, both the city and the local gastronomy have changed a lot. Nicolai Borukov, a passionate restaurateur and METRO customer from the very beginning, tells us how.

www.mpulse.de

Foods from the region are popular not least because they stand for solidarity with the homeland.

Local instead of global

Apples sourced locally, meat from the region - local produce and typical regional cuisine are a major trend. But why? 5 reasons for going local instead of global.

www.mpulse.de

The international trading office in Valencia, Spain, procures fruit and vegetables from all over the world for METRO.

Fast, Direct, Efficient – Customised Global Procurement

A strong network of international trading offices handles food procurement around the world for METRO. The goal: Quality, freshness and diversity. The strategy: Common sourcing.

www.mpulse.de