Northern Exposure: Ingenuity Thrives Among Foodies in Superior, Duluth
By Mary Bergin | Photos By Mary Bergin 0
When I get to know Mary Germinaro, it is through nods and hand signals. I point to my camera, and she grins with delight. When I take an interest in her work, she reaches for an exquisitely ripened tomato. Now both of us are grinning.
We meet in Superior, far-north Wisconsin, where Mary’s job for two decades has been filling plastic four-packs with the beefsteak Superior Tomato, grown year-round in the greenhouses of Bay Produce, part of the Challenge Center that helps developmentally disabled adults help themselves.
About two dozen workers—including Mary, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy—attentively follow these tomatoes from seedling to packaging. The unconventional fruit makes its way into high-end restaurants, average delis, grocery stores and hospital cafeterias. Up to 100 cases (each with at least 22 tomatoes) are harvested and shipped daily.
Demand tends to exceed supply. The success of the beefsteak led to the added production of grape tomatoes and sweet peppers—red, yellow and green—and what began as a one-half acre greenhouse project in 1990 has since tripled in size.
“It’s very easy to sell our tomatoes,” says Debbie Gergen, work services director. “We are recognized for our quality.”
I eat the Superior Tomato in a salad at the New Scenic Cafe in Two Harbors, Minn., just outside of Duluth, and in a seafood sandwich at the Angry Trout in Grand Marais, 100 miles farther north. Bay Produce customers extend into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and as far west as Fargo, N.D.
“People want to know the story behind their food,” Debbie observes. “We’re the safe tomato – vine-ripened in a monitored environment.” Anyone—college graduate students, first graders, vacationing families— can and have toured the operation, by appointment.What they see is far beyond a few rows of spindly stalks weighed down by plump bounty.