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A tomato farmer, with restaurant customers vanishing, sows unlikely opportunity during pandemic

“I’m busier than a pair of jumper cables at a lowrider parade,” White said. “It’s a new revenue stream without question”
Credit: SLBJ

ST. LOUIS — Tony White’s business nearly disappeared more than a month ago.

His Chesterfield-based enterprise, Tony’s Family Farms, supplies fresh produce to St. Louis’ top restaurants. But once Covid-19 breached the region, prompting stay-at-home orders, many dining establishments closed or drastically cut back on orders. What was to be a big month in April of $100,000 in sales was close to zero. 

Today, though, White works nonstop, thanks to a new customer base for home-delivered produce that will become a permanent fixture of his business. 

“I’m busier than a pair of jumper cables at a lowrider parade,” White said. “It’s a new revenue stream without question.”

White’s fortune is less luck than it is a history of ingenuity. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the U.S., he failed in his first year of farming in St. Louis. His investment of $600 on a small farm near St. Louis Lambert International Airport resulted in just a plate of peppers after a tornado swept through in 2011. 

But he kept at it, later partnering with other farmers in the same area, and his bounty was plentiful, so much so that his wife at the time sarcastically told him to sell his excess to the restaurant across the street. 

White and his two youngest kids pulled up to that restaurant — Trattoria Marcella in Lindenwood Park — at 8:30 one night with about 300 pounds of tomatoes. Andy Pietoso, whose family owns Clayton’s  Cafe Napoli, was having dinner next door and caught a glimpse of the scene. Before long, Pietoso and Trattoria Marcella owner Steve Komorek were embroiled in a bidding war over the tomatoes.

“Steve won that night, and he wrote us a check for $300 or something. It was insane,” White said. “Then I told the Pietoso family, ‘I’ll see you next week.’” 

That was eight years ago. In the time since, White built a customer base and a reputation, earning the nickname “Tony Tomato” by consistently delivering high quality produce to restaurants at competitive prices.

But the pandemic threatened to upend those years of hard work. As his restaurant customers closed practically overnight, he was still owed thousands of dollars from customers who had yet to pay or whose checks bounced. 

“It was a shock,” he said. “I couldn’t fathom all these restaurants going out of business or closing.”

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