Ricardoes Tomatoes is a local success story. Former hoteliers Anthony and Richard Sarks have created a fresh food farm gate franchise that’s winning a name for itself way beyond the Hastings …
Kellogg’s. It’s a funny name. But the thing is, you see it and you recognise it straight away: it’s a very successful brand. You know immediately what it stands for.”
The man speaking should know what he’s talking about; he’s in the health foods business himself, and Anthony Sarks, and his brother Richard, devised their own instant-recognition brand: Ricardoes Tomatoes.
In just a few years since the first seedlings were planted, Ricardoes Tomatoes has swiftly become a household name in the Hastings. Hear the brand and the product’s qualities leap to mind: fresh, great-tasting, sweet, wholesome, reliable, faultless … and a very rich, trademark red.
The brothers had been hoteliers, running the Macquarie Hotel in the central CBD on the corner of Clarence and Horton streets, when they switched in 2002 to growing tomatoes on a smallish farm at Blackmans Point.
“When we were looking to brand our produce with an identifiable name, Ricardoes evolved from a couple of inspirations,” Anthony recalls. “Our own family, the Sarks, is originally of Lebanese heritage, and the Lebanese people are probably better known for growing cucumbers and olives!
“But Ricardo is a nickname for Richard, and it’s also reminiscent of the Italian market gardeners who came to Australia in big numbers half a century ago. We started out growing only tomatoes, so Ricardo’s Tomatoes seemed to work. We even added an extra “e” – Ricardoes Tomatoes – so we weren’t totally stealing an Italian identity! And it makes us look like we know what we’re doing.”
The Sarks brothers indeed know what they’re doing. The family concern has prospered in a mere five years or so from a few hundred tomato vines into a thriving, multifaceted business.
Row upon row of tall white igloos line the winding country lane between the Pacific Highway and Hastings River, running some 80 m long and housing tens of thousands of prolific 3 m-tall tomato vines growing in up to 120 rows rooted in hydroponic channels. If planted in a single line, the vines would cover more than five kilometres.
Seasonally, dozens of casual workers come in at dawn and plant baby seedlings across the vast expanses of a couple of the igloo “green” houses, so that crops are maintained at different stages of growth, ensuring year-round reliable supplies. Although, this past summer, the fruit’s popularity saw those supplies stretched, when a routine annual stripping and replanting of the sheds saw the new plants – albeit each one producing many dozens of tomatoes – struggle to ripen fast enough to keep up with peak hot weather demand.
The vines flourish in a nutrient mix calculated to produce optimum fruit. But it’s not as simple as that. A computer is co-opted to control the precise amounts of feed and watering needed for peak quality and production. It also controls light, humidity, cooling, shading and heating – fans, vents and fogging equipment; it has a backup generator and is monitored 24/7 by the brothers for any necessary human input or overriding with recalibrations.
Daily, sample leaves are regularly checked under a microscope to ensure they’re pest-free. Farmhands move along the rows of vines checking and picking the progressively ripening fruit, de-leafing the vines of excess foliage, working at waist and head height and then mounting tall trolleys to carry them along the top of the vines, towering on twine supports metres into the air. The fruit is hand sorted, labelled and packaged, continuing to breathe through Ricardoes’ signature red net sacks, giving the product maximum shelf life. No cramming into cartons here.
Each morning it’s delivered to shops, premier fruiterers and restaurants around the district. It’s also available from stalls on farmers’ market days.
And it takes its place headlining a range of locally grown organic produce that’s sold from bins at the farm gate store, along with local preserves, olives, nuts, honey and other boutique delicacies such as vinegars, sweets and chocolates. But it doesn’t end there.
Selected fruit is chosen to go into Ricardoes’ own range of preserves: combined with sweet basil grown alongside the vines, it’s made into Ricardoes Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce and, with some other secret ingredients, emerges also in Grandfather Ricardoes Famous Tomato Relish. Much of it also goes into fresh menu items such as wraps and salads served at the on-site Café Red, a sunny dining space serving fresh light meals, cakes and coffee.
The seemingly endless variety of avenues that have opened up for Ricardoes Tomatoes are no accident. They’re a result of the brothers’ philosophy to “farm smarter”. The Sarks believe the way of agriculture in the future is to maximise local use of farm output, value-adding to the produce, and cutting back on the greenhouse gas emissions involved in traditional trucking of crates of fruit along long distances. It doesn’t happen by magic.
While growing a tomato may seem simple, some 20 staff are kept busy, whether on farm duties, restaurant procurement and management, produce store inventory, bookwork, cleaning, truck maintenance and so on. Then there’s marketing, advertising, promotions and business development.
Ricardoes Tomatoes is just graduating from a year-long intensive assistance program provided by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council’s Economic Development section. The company was among an elite clutch of local businesses fitting a range of strict criteria selected by the Council for its inaugural Key Business Development Program. Among the criteria are that the business is unique, that it offers economic benefits to the local community, and that it shows the promise of being able to develop and export its products or services beyond the Hastings.
Ricardoes filled the bill perfectly. It’s won the support of State Government grants for its expansion and has followed up its potential as a unique tourist attraction, drawing holidaymakers and regular travellers on the Pacific Highway to make a short detour for a break from the road and some refreshments. A new project in the past year has been its successful expansion into strawberry growing.
Ricardoes’ strawberries are not the mere ground-planted posies of leaves bearing sparse few fruit that most home gardeners are familiar with. Like the tomatoes, they grow on towering vines higher than a tall man’s head, supported by frames in two new igloos.
Most are picked and packed or sold in the produce store, but some of the most robust make their way onto creamy cakes served at Café Red, and choice berries are culled to go into another new product, Ricardoes Strawberry Jam. The jam, with a subtle citrus tang, has become a popular item almost overnight and often sells out unless you’re early on market days. Just a few months after its launch it won a medal for excellence at the Sydney Royal Easter Show’s Fine Food Show.Last month, in another innovation, the brothers launched their “U-Pick” strawberry experience: visitors can take a bucket and pluck their own fresh berries. It’s been working well as a fun family back-to-nature experience, says Anthony, with adults – often the grandparents – able to reach the top of the vines while children simultaneously move among the lower leaves, vying with each other to find the biggest and brightest buds. “We call it See, Touch, Taste,” Anthony says. “With so much awareness of environmental issues these days, it’s a great back-to-nature experience.”
Now the search is on for the gradual opening of new farming avenues. Already, surplus coconut peat mulch is sold to eager gardeners. And on the cards is the planting of other fresh produce, so visitors can pick up an entire salad fresh from the farm gate. It’s possible too that elite providores such as David Jones Food Hall in Sydney may soon stock the Ricardoes preserves. There will be an online newsletter, and potential expansion into posting preserves to far-flung customers in between their visits here. Events such as birthday parties, group celebrations, music among the vines, and markets at the farm gate are on the drawing board.
“Like our tomatoes and strawberries, we want to grow carefully so we can keep control of quality,” says Anthony. “There are lots of businesses like ours in the Hastings, smaller family-run hands-on businesses that you won’t find in the city, and we all work well together helping each other. We’re always on the lookout to include new local fresh produce and products in our store.
“We’ve had wonderful support from the local community, too, and we try to give back by supporting charitable events. We also hope to be able to host school groups: it’s a great educational experience for youngsters to see first-hand how a farm works … and one of the benefits of living in this terrific part of the country.”
Story and photos by Susie Boswell.