From my first handshake with Lucky Lee, vice president and founder of Lucky’s Real Tomatoes, it was immediately apparent to me how important her team was to her business. Before she started talking about her tomatoes, she introduced me to her team and gathered everyone together for a group photo.
“One person doesn’t make a company like this — it’s a team of people,” Lee said, referring to not only those who work in her facility on Meserole Ave., but also the family members and employees at her Florida and North Carolina farms and facilities. “Our team can make it through anything.”
It’s this team that has made Lucky’s Real Tomatoes so successful and carried the company through major setbacks like Hurricane Sandy, which required the company to completely rebuild its Greenpoint facility. Since Lee and her sister drove a truck of fresh tomatoes from Florida to New York City in the middle of winter in 1978 and founded Lucky’s with her brother and CEO, Alan Marcelli, she’s had a consistently growing client base of chefs who are eager to have quality, field-grown tomatoes—many of whom have been Lucky’s customers for over 30 years.
“Our business is based on tomatoes that are American, grown in the ground, and ripened by the sun. That’s the old fashioned way. That’s how our grandparents used to do it,” Lee said. Lucky’s tomatoes are shipped up from Florida nine months out of the year, and from the Smokies of North Carolina during the remaining three months.
But this is an anomaly in the tomato industry. “Over the past couple decades, the industry has changed. [Other companies] pick [the tomatoes] green and they gas them, they grow them in greenhouses. There are a number of ways to make that tomato durable for shipping, which is the commercialization of a good-tasting tomato. Because we do it the same way now as we did 30 years ago…we have the same customers.”
Those customers include whom Lee calls “chef superstars” like Jean-Georges, Danny Meyer, and Daniel Boulud. But they’re seen more as family than as clients; they’ve been working together for so long that Lucky’s has grown in tandem with many of these chefs’ careers.
“We have personal relationships with the chefs,” Lee said, who actually received a souvenir from a chef returning from vacation as I was conducting this interview.
A huge part of that personal relationship is the exceptional customer service Lucky’s provides. “If we see there’s a problem down the road with the weather, Teresa is on the phone, calling them and saying ‘we think because it’s going to be rainy, we’re suggesting a switch to this tomato.’ Chefs love that, because most companies are too busy to do that.”
Teresa is Teresa Tsirkin, who works in customer service. “It’s such a pleasure to deal with chefs who understand the product. They understand us, and they appreciate what we’re doing for them.”
The drivers play a crucial role, too—they are hand-delivering product to the chefs, and Lucky makes sure they spend ample time speaking directly to the clients about what kinds of tomatoes they need, and when they need them.
“Drivers go through a rigorous training process,” Alejandro Toro, shipping/receiving, said. That training process begins directly with Lee—who was the first driver in the business.
“When I got to that point of getting off the truck and hiring drivers, the chefs were used to [me] coming to their kitchen personally. I would show up at a certain restaurant just before lunch because I knew the cornbread was coming out of the oven, or the fried calamari was coming out of this kitchen because it was 15 minutes before lunchtime, and I kind of ate my way around the city,” Lee said, laughing. “As we hired drivers, I scrutinized like there was no tomorrow.”
And being a truck driver for Lucky’s means being part of a closed-loop system that has been implemented ever since the company first bought a truck. The tomatoes go from the ground, to a Lucky’s truck, to a Lucky’s warehouse, onto another Lucky’s truck, on to the distribution point, and finally on another Lucky’s truck to its final destination.
“Closed loop means you’re in control of the product the entire time,” Lee said.
Recently, Lucky’s has expanded to the retail sector beyond the food service business, which primarily includes 300-400 Manhattan restaurants and businesses. “We had been doing retail in the city, but on a limited basis—the gourmet markets like Eataly, Agata & Valentina, Gourmet Garage — those were all our customers. But it was on a smaller scale. [Recently], we stepped into the retail arena on a very large scale.”
With the addition of a vice president of business development a couple years ago, Lucky’s has grown its retail business and has added thousands of clients through its distributors. The retail business is something the company is very much looking forward to, and it has already begun selling tomatoes, primarily the wildly popular Tasty Lee—a tomato as red on the inside as it is on the outside—to markets and supermarkets in New England.
With the constant expansion, Lucky’s hopes to build its facility in Greenpoint. Current zoning laws have revealed that they are in a tight position to physically expand—but Lee’s not worried about their growth. Having a facility in North Carolina takes a lot of the pressure off Greenpoint expansion plans, but Lee hopes to one day be able to give back to the community in a big way: cooking classes with some of their chefs, a rooftop garden, and the manufacturing of tomato sauce and salsa are a few ideas.
“We want to grow, but we want to grow in the right way—sustainable growth. That’s the same way we’ve grown our company,” Lee said.
For more information on where you can find Lucky’s tomatoes in Manhattan restaurants, visit their website.