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Chicago's Tomato Man wants to reintroduce homegrown flavor, compared to "tasteless travesties" from supermarkets

Chicago's Tomato Man looks to reintroduce everyone to homegrown flavor
Chicago's Tomato Man looks to reintroduce everyone to homegrown flavor 04:21

CHICAGO (CBS)— One Chicago man has spent the last decade helping everyone experience the taste of homegrown tomatoes.

His mission is to rid the world of what he calls the "travesty" of store-bought tomatoes.

Ben Zeni, who became known as the Chicago Tomato Man, earned the name after selling and giving away tens of thousands of tomato plants in an effort to not only experience the taste of a homegrown tomato but also learn how to grow them.

One might be surprised to learn that people will stand in line for tomato plants.

"The varieties of tomatoes that we make available are unique, oddball, eccentric, offbeat," Zeni said.

Zeni is kind of a big deal.

"You might think it is building a community, but I prefer to call it a cult. It's a tomato cult," he said.

The hobbyist turned tomato expert draws scores of eager people, hoping to pick up a trick or two on how to grow the best tomatoes. Once you've gone homegrown, it's hard to go back. 

"It's criminal what the food industry has done to the tomato," Zeni said. "When people think of a tomato, they will think of what they've got from a grocery store, and what I've tried to do is rescue the tomato from that perception that they are tasteless travesties, which is what supermarkets sell."

He sells a variety of tomato plants at pop-ups across the city. Customers place their orders online, and some buy anywhere from one plant to 300.

Zeni works with a farmer near Joliet who shares his philosophy on growing. 

"Which is good seeds, good soil, no chemicals. Just sunlight and heat, and he will grow around 10,000 for us," he said.

Once the plants are old enough, workers from the nonprofit The Gardeners help pack and sort them.

Zeni's partnered with the nonprofit after learning about them around the time when both ventures started. 

"Years ago, I had a few excess plants, and I just ran into someone who said, there's this group starting up called the gardeners. and you might want to talk to them because they put gardens in at schools throughout the city, and they could always use excess plants," he said.

The Gardeners helped Zeni run his tomato operation ever since. In exchange, he gives them plants. They're one on a list of nonprofits and community gardens getting plants from the Chicago Tomato Man.

"Working with the Gardeners taught me that there are parts of this city where there are people whose only understanding of a tomato is through gas stations, fast foods, or convenience stores, and that's just manifestly unfair.," Zeni said.

He says that by giving them plants, they can get tomatoes into the hands of everyone, no matter where. 

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