Jan 02, 2024

This PA Tomato Farm Has Over 700 Kinds of Tinned Fish

The TikTok trend turned Rainbow Tomatoes Garden into the capital of "Hot Girl Food."

A selection of tinned fish from Rainbow Tomatoes Garden. / Photograph by Esra Erol

Dan Waber is perhaps the most knowledgeable person on tinned fish. Drive a little over 50 miles outside of Philadelphia and you’ll find his farm, Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, which he co-owns and operates with his wife, Jenny Hill, and her daughter, Helen Kaucher. In addition to over 300 kinds of tomatoes, the East Greenville farm offers the world’s largest selection of tinned seafood. Sardines, anchovies, tuna, oysters, squid — they have it all.

The tomatoes came first. In 2019, Waber and Hill bought their Montgomery County property, where they grow and sell tomatoes of all colors, shapes and sizes. When their first season ended, customers kept returning to the roadside stand and asking what else they had. That’s when Waber and Hill decided to expand into a year-round operation. Waber started sourcing goods that would go well with tomatoes, like balsamic vinegar, olive oil and flaky sea salt, when he realized that one of his suppliers had a line of tinned fish. “I thought, I don’t know if anybody’s going to buy tinned fish from a tomato stand, but let’s try it,” he said, adding that they sold out on the first day. “Nobody even looked at the prices.”

Güeyu Mar, a Spanish conservas brand, hit the U.S. market in December 2020 during the pandemic which kept people at home. The coinciding events created a boom in sales of shelf-stable foods to last between grocery trips, and during that time, Rainbow Tomatoes Garden experienced month-over-month growth.

There are plenty of reasons to love tinned fish. First, they’re convenient. You can eat them over the sink with a fork, on a cracker with kimchi, in a wrap or on a salad. Second, there are so many different kinds to try. That variety has made them the centerpieces of “seacuterie” boards, and because each tin is so unique, from the artwork to the product inside, they bring main-character energy to the “Hot Girl Food” trend.

Some of the tinned fish you’ll find at Rainbow Tomatoes Garden. / Photograph by Dan Waber

Today, Rainbow Tomatoes Garden carries over 700 products and sources from 105 different vendors. Fifteen percent of their inventory is comprised of products requested by their customers while the other 85 percent is products Waber, Hill and Kaucher have tried and liked. “I’m a nerd,” said Waber. He is inquisitive by nature. Once he connects with the numerous tinned seafood social media groups out there (the canned sardines subreddit remains one of his favorite corners of the internet), and he sees people showing off the products they have, he has to have it on his shelves. And he does the legwork of finding out how to obtain it — it’s a massive amount of administrative work. “The reason nobody has 750 different products? It’s really hard,” said Waber.

This year, when it was time to start thinking about seedlings and starting the tomatoes, Waber and Hill decided to put word out in the farmer network to see if anybody wanted to take over the tomatoes. They wanted to focus solely on tinned fish, as their growth has been continuous. “We looked around and we said, there’s no way we’re going to be able to do tomatoes and tinned fish at this moment in time.” They got extra help on the farm, and now they’re able to focus solely on tinned seafood. And just in time. Despite the fact that tinned fish has long been a part of Spain and Portugal’s culinary heritage, online creators are making video content fueling America’s obsession with it. One such creator, @daywithmei, posted a TikTok video about Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, and the online orders started rolling in. “We’re small enough that we see the effects of that,” said Waber. That video went up the weekend before July 4th — for the next six days, Waber, Hill and Kaucher worked roughly 20 hours each day just in fulfilling orders.

The demand for tinned fish is higher than ever, which is why this year, Rainbow Tomatoes Garden is closing its store on September 2nd, earlier than normal. (Though, they will still be fulfilling online orders.) The business is growing and Waber wants to plan properly for next year. He sees nothing but growth in the industry at this point.

Every day, 100 shipments go out and because they run their business out of a small farm house, they are running into space limitations. “We’re starting to look for the right facility that isn’t here,” said Waber. “We don’t know if it’s going to be a warehouse facility that maybe has a showroom in the front. Or if it’s going to be a retail space that will let us do shipping in the back.”

Waber was a professional chef for 10 years and Helen is a pastry chef. That’s a lot of restaurant experience. And if they found the right building, they could ship out of the back and run tastings on the sales floor.

The world of tinned fish can be overwhelming, especially when you’re met with a vast library of over 700 varieties like you’ll find at Rainbow Tomatoes Garden. But Waber finds the idea of “beginner tinned fish” baffling. “There are no beginner, intermediate and advanced cans of beans, or cans of soup,” he said. “But when it becomes seafood, people seem to lose their minds for some reason.”

Since it’s a question that comes up a lot, Waber has created several ways to navigate his collection. On the Rainbow Tomatoes Garden website, he has created tags for Ways to Begin as well as tinned fish for beginners. He says every product is tagged as beginner, intermediate or advanced, but they’re pretty arbitrary.

But if you’re still at a loss of where to begin, you can name the price you’re willing to pay and let Waber, Hill and Kaucher pick a selection of tinned fish for you in their Surprise Me box. “Ever since we built this product, it has quickly become the most popular item we sell, and is especially popular with people who don’t know where to start,” said Waber.

When you’re ready to get creative, Waber recommends Kaucher’s zine, Eat From the Tin Like a Heathen or Try Tinned Fish With Something , and Anna Hezel’s cookbook, Tin to Table. When you begin your tinned fish journey, Waber says it’s best not to overthink it: “Guaranteed deliciousness.” But if you really don’t know where to start on the online shop, Waber says you can text or email him. “I love helping anybody get over whatever it is that’s keeping them from trying the products,” he said.

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