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From tomatoes to tinned fish? How one Pennsylvania business found success by swimming upstream

Couple originally from Luzerne County finds success in selling tinned fish.
Ilia Nesolenyi/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Couple originally from Luzerne County finds success in selling tinned fish.

“It’s like chicken, how many ways can you make chicken? All of them! … It’s a protein source, so you can use it in all of these ways!”

That’s Dan Waber. He moved from Luzerne County to Montgomery County a little over a
decade ago. Before the move, Dan and his wife, Jenny Hill – both artists with a shared passion for the written word – owned Edwardsville’s Paper Kite, a publishing house, performance space, art gallery, and bookstore. Since then, Waber and Hill have found success in Southeastern PA as a big name in small farming. Their venture in East Greenville, called Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, quickly gained popularity with Pennsylvanians and visitors beyond, boasting literal hundreds of varieties of the red fruit and earning mentions in the New York Times T-list, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Eater, and countless foodie blogs. Now, with the success of love apples under them, the owners have been reeling in customers with a new product: tinned fish.

It’s a shift that came about amid food supply-chain questions due to Covid-19, but one that has proven surprisingly successful due to its low-volume, high-margin flexibility. It’s been so successful, in fact, that they leased their tomato-growing land to another farmer while they focus on online retail sales of anchovies, sardines, tuna, and other tinned delights. Waber attributes this growth to innovative ideas in their business model, and the shopping needs of customers visiting the farm stand, saying, “I started looking for things that went with tomatoes… people would leave with a sack of tomatoes and say ‘All I need is some salt and I’m good!’, so I sourced some flake salt from the west coast, and balsamic vinegars and olive oils.” His break came when one of companies they buy olive oil from had a line of tinned fish, “so I bought a case each of four different things, and I put them out in the farm stand and they were gone in two days.”

From there, things really took off. Waber immediately began restocking and expanding out, with the plan to dial things down once customers stopped buying. But that moment didn’t quite arrive. “Over the winter, when there were no tomatoes”, Waber said. “The tinned fish business kept growing, to the point where we’re an LLC now, we just got our first paycheck from the company - super exiting - up until December, we had month over month growth for 27 straight months.”

In just over two years, and without anyone else to say otherwise, Waber, Jenny Hill, and her daughter Helen now co-own and operate what they call the “largest online retailer of tinned fish” in the country. The website, RainbowTomatoesGarden.com, boasts over 750 varieties of cans, with new items moving on the first day they appear for sale. Waber attributes their early success to finding a niche market with a loyal customer base, saying, “Our word of mouth is off the charts, our repeat business is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my business life. The saying is ‘you make hay while the sun shines’ right?”

While regular consumers of tinned fish have flocked to Rainbow Tomatoes for their fix, Waber has been focusing on getting new customers out of their comfort zone and following through with feedback. “What I had learned from researching this whole community – and it is a very active community – people wanna see what’s inside the can. So, let’s be the company who shows everybody what’s inside the can.”

Helen Kaucher, who packs and ships all the orders from the converted farmhouse room she calls “the fish office”, is an equal owner of the business. When Waber suggested adding fish to the tomato stand, nothing seemed out of place. “Our family gets into various escapades and avenues, so it wasn’t really that surprising to me,” Kaucher says, before quickly adding, “I mean, it was unusual. Usually it’s poetic or artistic, but this time it’s in tins, so it’s a little bit of a different media, I guess.”

As things began picking up with her “new media”, Kaucher was taking pictures of the inside of every can in stock and making videos to show people how to use the varieties as an ingredient in cooking. The Rainbow Tomatoes Instagram page is a seemingly endless scroll of ideas – white wine paired with octopus and oil-based varieties, red wine with squid ink and tomato-based tins, fortified wines with sardines, and even pairings with beer. Waber is quick to add, “It’s not just eat it and stand over the sink, which there’s nothing wrong with! These things are, in many cases, Michelin Star restaurant quality insides.”

So, who are their customers? Aside from locals coming to the farmstand in the warmer months, they get orders from as far off as Australia. In the same two-year span since Rainbow Tomatoes began selling tinned fish, the subreddit r/cannedsardines has grown from 1,300 members to over 35,000. Waber says this has been a boon to their business and market research: “It’s a very active community of very nice people operating at every price range and all over the world.”

When it comes to his own favorite products Waber avoids endorsing anything specific, but can’t resist sharing some of the major varieties. He pulls out a can of Nuri Sardines, a hand-sized tin with a yellow and green wrapper and a friendly floral font. Waber teaches as he gestures with the can, saying “This is like a cult classic in the sardine world. They’re big, there’s probably 3- 4 fish in this tin, and it’s all hand packed in Portugal. They don’t use any machinery there. And the spice level – it’s got a little clove, a little bague, a little piri piri pepper … and fairly affordable … These are 7 bucks.”

Kaucher is a little quicker to admit what she eats the most. “Um, we eat a lot of the dented ones,” she says, adding, “It’s the Flower Spiced Moroccan Sardines… I really like cod liver, also, and mussels.” As she rattles off her favorites, Helen holds up various tins of Sardinha, a brand wrapped in colorful paper, each one brighter and bolder than the last, and each with an illustrated sardine in various circumstances: one is topped by a sliced lemon halve, another pokes out of either side of a red pepper. She reaches for a different package – this one with an orange and white striped fish tail, drawn to look like a windsock. It’s a can of Jose Gourmet sardines. “The Jose Gourmet has really amazing art,” she says, “– every fish and flavor is different.”

Some varieties are pricier, but breaking the bank isn’t a requirement for those looking to dip their toe into tinned fish. Waber warns against the cheapest options, saying, “If it’s under five bucks, there’s some serious exploitation that’s gone on, either of natural or human resources … a fully industrialized process at that point.”

Sustainability is more than a buzzword in the economy of edible underwater delights, a point that highlights the family’s focus on intentionality. Waber says their business choices aren’t driven solely by satisfying a customer, but by their own sense of what is right and responsible for the environment and economy: “We feel like we’re doing the best we can… and we’re trying to avoid the worst excesses that are out there, and trying learn what we can and do the best we can.” Waber adds his own litmus test for consumers with an eye for greenwashing, saying, “In broad general terms, the smaller the company is, the less likely they are to be doing something nefarious. Where possible, buy it from someone you know who made it.”

Rainbow Tomatoes remains a small company and small farm with big ideas. They opened a performance space on the farm called The Wunderbarn where Jenny Hill (Waber’s wife and Kaucher’s mother), serves as artistic director, organizing performances and workshops with regional artists. It’s a bespoke artistic setting for the Pennsylvania community, and reflects the local mentality that keeps customers coming back to the farm stand.

Jenny also gets in on the marketing act, donning an earflap hat and fake mustache to issue updates from around the farm as her alter-ego, a plucky field-reporter named Tom Mato and sometimes, his sister, Tam. Tom is whimsical, if gruff, and files video reports to social media from between rows of tomatoes or next to the farm’s pond.

Their regional appeal continues to connect with people online, as well. Aside from surfing the subreddits, Dan has come up with promotions to encourage adventurous eaters and foster the growing community of tinned a-fish-ianados on their website, offering discounts for artists, teachers, and those in unrecognized special professions. Even customers who want to write an honest review or find a typo in the online shop can get a few bucks off.

Finally, for those who are timid, Rainbow offers a free first can to anyone afraid to dive in – so long as they write why they are afraid, and then later leave an honest review. According to their website: “The only people who don’t like tinned fish are the people who haven’t tried it.”

When asked if there is anything they won’t stock, Waber replies, “The question we always ask ourselves is ‘What if nobody buys it? Am I okay eating it?” It’s gotta be good or we don’t carry it”.

The actual Rainbow Tomatoes farm stand is open Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the season, and anyone not able to make the drive can visit them at RainbowTomatoesGarden.com.

Matthew Hinton is a writer and freelance contributor to WVIA news. He lives in Forty Fort, and is an educator at Misericordia University, where he teaches writing and literature. He holds degrees from King's College and Wilkes University.