Simply Tomatoes provides a model for export success

Posted by Editorial on 28th September 2009

Marilyn Lanyon first took the plunge into exporting in 2002. But after trialling her green tomatoes products on a number of international palettes, it’s the Middle East that is proving to be her recipe for success.

When Marilyn Lanyon first started selling her green tomatoes at local farmers’ markets in 1978, the Middle East was a far and distant place.

A farmer in the Victorian region of Boort, Marilyn was pondering what she and her husband Ian should do with their abundant crop of green tomatoes. Then a friend suggested that she do what her grandmother used to do – preserve them in brine, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and garlic. So she did.

At first Marilyn continued to sell her Simply Tomatoes products at farmers’ markers. Then she began to get orders from local speciality stores. And then gourmet food chains. And, in time, her green tomato products were doing a roaring trade in the Middle East.

Marilyn first entered the Middle East after participating in the Victorian Government’s product stand at the Dubai Gulfood trade show in 2008. Prior to this, she had been part of a Victorian Government tradeshow in Singapore, which helped her get business in Hong Kong.

“When I was first approached by the Victorian Government to consider exporting, I thought no one would be interested in our products but then I realised ‘wow, here’s an opportunity to see what the world thinks of our products’. Our first tradeshow was in Singapore and we got orders from quite a few Asian countries and Europe. But it’s the Middle East that has been the most successful for us,” Marilyn said.

Following Gulfood 08, buyers began to approach Marilyn and the sales began rolling. Simply Tomatoes also signed a distribution contract with specialty gourmet food store Dean & DeLuca (originally a New York based retailer), giving the company a strong Middle Eastern retail presence. This presence is set to expand with Dean & DeLuca planning to open up ten new stores across the Gulf region over the next three years.

Marilyn says that Middle Eastern taste buds are particularly suited to the variety of green tomato products she makes. In addition, all Simply Tomatoes products are Halal certified, which is an essential requirement for foods produced for the Middle East.

“My green tomatoes fit the Middle East perfectly because they work in traditional Middle Eastern cooking,” she noted. “Buyers tell me that customers love the products because they can put them in anything – salads, main dishes or sandwiches.”

In February 2009, Marilyn returned to Dubai for Gulfood 09 with even greater success. “While we were there, two staff members and I went to Kuwait and visited Dean & DeLuca. It was absolutely wonderful and so exciting to see our products nestled amongst such a brilliant array of fine food from all over the world.”

While at the store Marilyn joined buyers to have a meeting with the Dean & DeLuca group recruitment team. There she received an offer to act as their sole agent in Australia, sourcing fine foods from all over the country for their franchise stores throughout the Middle East.
Currently, exports amount to roughly 30 per cent of the company’s overall sales, but Marilyn is hopeful these numbers will build to around 80 per cent.

The journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing, however. Marilyn warns that companies need to be prepared for time consuming processes such as the approval of legal paperwork and the problems that can be encountered in language and cultural differences.

“The difficult thing about working with the Middle East is that they have a different working week (Sunday- Thursday) and things can take longer than you expect in terms of approvals and getting things resolved,” she said. “Also, you need to be prepared for upfront costs in terms of making your products suitable for their market requirements, for example changes to packaging. You have to go into it with a long term view.”

“I have a motto when it comes to exporting – take small steps but think big,” she added. “I have never been educated in this area, but if you believe in your product you can export.”