What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
Red Tomato was founded in 1996. Michael Rozyne, one of the founders of the fair trade company Equal Exchange, took a sabbatical in 1995 from the fair trade coffee world to explore what it might look like to apply the lessons and principles of the fair trade movement to support farmers in the northeastern U.S.
Local food had yet to grab the attention of consumers, retailers, food writers or policy makers, but it was clear that small and medium sized farmers were losing their ability to compete in an increasingly consolidated, global marketplace. At the same time, fresh produce available to consumers had lost much of its flavor, seasonality, and even nutritional value thanks to standardization and long-distance transport and storage. Red Tomato was born out of the question: “What would fair trade look like for regional produce in the Northeast?”
At first, Red Tomato functioned as a small warehouse and distribution operation, in addition to marketing, selling and helping to develop new products. Eventually, it became clear that a conventional distribution model at that scale could not compete economically. In a risky and carefully considered shift, Red Tomato closed its warehouse, cancelled its truck lease, and began to concentrate on managing logistics through a network of farmers, independent truckers, and wholesale partners. Coupled with renewed focus on marketing, branding, and packaging to help give the farms and products more visibility with consumers, this strategy is working. Today our grower network is stronger than ever and despite the economic downturn and growing unpredictability in the weather, the volume of produce that we have sold over the past two years has remained steady AND at an all-time high.
Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.
Michael Rozyne’s career in food began when high school ended. On an AFS trip to Bombay in the summer of 1974, Michael saw famine in India. He walked miles through city streets, followed by young children begging. Upon reflection, Michael could not reconcile the poverty and disease in India with the standard of living that existed in the United States. India also left him addicted to papaya and mangoes.
As a college student at Bowdoin College, Michael organized a natural foods dining program which survives to this day. His college mentor was a political economist, David Vail, whose research was on the economics of successful organic farms in Maine. Under his guidance, Michael studied the root causes of world hunger, U.S. farm policy, and socialist economic systems.
After graduation, Michael worked 60 hours a week at $3.00/hour, no overtime pay, for two years after college, for a Yankee curmudgeon farmer named Mel Estabrook. The combination of mental and physical work with growing and harvesting things developed a new passion in Michael. Michael’s next step was to develope purchasing and product development skills at Northeast Cooperatives. There Michael also learned how to manage a wholesale food business and studied financial management in night school.
Founding and launching Equal Exchange was Michael’s next milestone. There, with two trusted colleagues, the young entrepreneurs had the opportunity to do business in a new way. They built a structural fortress around the fair trade mission, while financing the business with investments from individuals who believed in that mission. Employees controlled the business, yet contributed only 10% of the working capital. In 2002, with sales of $10.2 million, EE paid coffee farmers premiums over the world market price of coffee that totaled $1.2 million.
The farms of the Northeast, though, still had a hold on Michael. His sabbatical in 1995 brought him back to this first passion and Red Tomato was born.
How did you first hear about Changemakers?
If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company