PORTAGE PARK — The “Tomato Man” is gearing up for a busy pop-up season starting this weekend on the Northwest Side.
Bob Zeni, a 70-year-old graphic designer from suburban LaGrange Park, launched his website and started selling tomatoes at various locations last year. After Block Club reported on his plant selling in Portage and Lincoln Parks, Zeni sold out of his inventory.
“I had so many requests, I figured I would try to scale up because every year I try to scale up,” Zeni said. “I thought, ‘Well, I want to double production’, but there wasn’t enough space in my house.”
Zeni has grown tomatoes out of his home for 25 years with the help of his daughter and wife. But with his grand expansion, he needed more room and more hands. He decided to partner with Gardeneers, a nonprofit that helps Chicago combat food deserts by building school gardens and teaching young folks how to grow vegetables.
Zeni is working with the Gardeneers team out of Homan Rails Farm in Homan Square, where more than 100 tomato varieties have been planted and 4,000 plants will be ready for sale starting this weekend. Last year, Zeni sold about 1,000 plants.
$3 from every plant sold will help fund Gardeneers, which Zeni has supported with plant donations in the past.
Chicagoans wanting to grow their own tomatoes can order online from Zeni until Wednesday night and pick them up Saturday at Perkolator Coffee, 6032 W. Irving Park Road, from 9 a.m.-noon. or from Lake Effect Brewing, 4727 W. Montrose Ave, #C from 1:30-4 p.m.
If you’re unable to order plants before the weekend, Zeni will have another pop-up sale at the same locations and times May 21, and orders for that day will close the night of May 18.
He plans to have a limited amount of plants for sale at the weekend pop-up but encourages folks to pre-order online to make sure they get the plants they want before it’s too late. The order deadline will also give Zeni and his helpers time to package and pair all of the orders — which isn’t easy when dealing with thousands of plants that all look the same, he said.
“I want everybody to get their plants,” he said. “What I don’t want is people to be disappointed.”
Zeni is selling several new varieties this year, including Rutgers, a classic heirloom that has a juicy texture and rich red interior, making it a favorite gardener heirloom for generations. New heirloom varieties like the Lucid Gem, Black Beauty and Karma Purple are also fresh options this year.
“The Blacks tend to have a smokey almost salty flavor, the oranges are more mild and less acidic, while anyone that’s described as sweet have a very sugary flavor right off the vine,” he said.
By May, the tomato plants for sale will average between 6” to 16” tall – depending on the variety and when gardeners pick them up. Plants sell for $6 apiece.
Zeni also added more pop-ups around the city to meet the demand. In addition to the Northwest Side, the ‘Tomato Man’ will have pop-ups for pickup orders at the following city locations starting Sunday:
- Homan Rails Farm, 3415 W. Arthington St. from 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. Sunday, May 14 and May 22.
- Diversey Harbor South parking lot, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, from 1:30 p.m.- 4 p.m. May 15.
- 450 N. Leavitt St. from 1:30-4 p.m. Sunday and May 22.
- 10339 S. California Ave. from 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m. May 14.
He hopes that his enthusiasm for tomatoes and his pop-up events can inspire urban gardeners to try growing the plants themselves — and learn by trial and error, just like he did when he first began growing tomatoes at his house.
“What I hope is that people, if they’re working from home and have time on their hands, and they have the inclination, that they try growing themselves,” he said. “It requires some learning and it requires some persistence. And there will of course, always be failures. But you pick a tomato off the vine and it’s sugary, sweet — which you’ll never taste from a grocery store tomato.”
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