The fight for freshness in the fast-food industry has come to the tomato.
On Tuesday, Wendy’s said it plans to start using tomatoes grown on either hydroponic farms or in greenhouses in all 5,700 of its domestic locations by early 2019.
The company believes that the shift in supply will ensure a higher quality of tomato that can be sourced year-round.
Wendy’s made the change for a “variety of reasons, but taste and quality are the top factors,” Dennis Hecker, senior vice president of quality assurance for the Dublin, Ohio-based quick-service chain, said in a statement. “We are excited about the superior flavors we can achieve with the change.”
He also said that greenhouse farms provide supply predictability and quality assurance benefits. That includes continuity of supply, protection of crops from harsh weather, safer growing conditions and “significant reduction of chemical pesticides used in the plants.”
The move comes as quick-service restaurants continue to push their supply chains to improve quality and sustainability amid intense competition, particularly from quality-boasting fast-casual concepts.
For Wendy’s, the move could help protect its turf as a top burger provider. The burger chain has long established a beachhead as a higher-quality fast-food chain. Yet rivals, notably McDonald’s, have worked to improve their own ingredients.
But the company says there will be other benefits to the move, too. The company says shifting to greenhouse growing will support local economies by purchasing fresh produce that can be grown year-round instead of seasonably.
Yet the move comes as Wendy's has drawn some ire from activists over its decision not to join the Fair Food Program, a coalition of farms, workers and retail food companies that has sought to improve working conditions among fruit and vegetable pickers. The program counts a number of major chains among its partners, including McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King.
Wendy's says it has a dozen suppliers throughout North America, including the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Great Lakes. “Nearly all tomatoes” will be sourced from the U.S. and Canada.
Wendy’s says that it expects to see social and environmental benefits from the shift, including the reduction of pesticide use and replacing pesticides with natural pest management practices such as ladybugs.
The company also says working conditions should improve and the move will have benefits in water and land use.