You say tomato, I say ... ready, set, food fight!

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2011 - 11:05 PM

Minnesota, get ready for a saucy new festival featuring thousands of people pelting each other with thousands of pounds of tomatoes.

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From left, Tom Broich of Plymouth, Kamal Mohamed of Minneapolis and Kevin Walker of Grand Rapids hope to replicate Spain’s annual tomato fight in Afton.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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They are three young men with a vision.

A vision of ... tomatoes.

Flying tomatoes.

A vision of 200,000 pounds of flying tomatoes, overripe and suitably mushy, being gleefully hurled at one another by a throng of 15,000 people on a warm July afternoon.

Why? Well, it might be said that Kamal Mohamed, Kevin Walker and Tom Broich have a sixth sense about such things: They see red people.

The trio of young entrepreneurs are the driving force behind Midwest Tomato Fest. It's a planned daylong celebration that includes food and music set for July 31 at the Afton Alps Recreation Area and will culminate with tons of fruit-turned-ammunition being deployed in a sodden, crimson-soaked donnybrook.

All in good, not-so-clean fun.

Mohamed, Walker and Broich are all marketing, business or entrepreneurship students at the University of St. Thomas -- the latter two graduated this spring, and Mohamed has a year of study left. They're wasting no time putting their lessons to real-life use, combining youthful enthusiasm with business savvy.

Their idea was inspired by La Tomatina, a massive, village-wide tomato fight dating back more than 50 years in Buñol, Spain. Oh, and a woman.

Mohamed was on a service trip to India during the school's January interim when the idea took root.

"I met this girl there who was from Spain," he said. "Obviously we're exchanging stories, and she told me about the tomato fight. I was just really intrigued."

Similar good-natured hysteria has been springing up around the world, including places like China, Colombia and Chile. When Mohamed shared his story with his two college roommates, they decided to get in on the ground floor.

The past few months have been spent pulling the plans together, from sponsorships, insurance and musical performers, to lining up tons of tomatoes and figuring out how to clean up afterward. Friends and family are pitching in, and a paramedic group has offered to be on standby.

A distributor in Kansas has arranged to ship up to 200,000 pounds of tomatoes, drawing from sources in four different states. Walker calculates that they will need 66,000 pounds for every 5,000 tickets sold. They are aiming to sell 15,000 tickets but recognize that may be optimistic for a first-year event.

"A big question people have is 'Oh, such a waste of tomatoes,' but the thing is, we're not wasting tomatoes because all the tomatoes are overripe and will be past their sale date," Mohamed said. "So these tomatoes were just going to be thrown away anyway. We're just using those tomatoes."

Besides, overripe tomatoes are softer.

As for cleanup, special trucks with showers and blowers will allow participants to hose off the residue. A Bobcat loader will clear the other remnants of battle in the parking lot.

Afton Alps is a picturesque setting for skiing and golf, and it hosts weddings, mountain bike races and other events throughout the year, said Joe Yasis, base operations manager. "We've staged events larger than this, but a large-scale food fight? No."

Along with being biodegradeable, the acidic nature of tomatoes will leave the site cleaner than it was before, Broich said. "Once it's washed away, it actually leaves asphalt sparkling clean."

The three men are not novices when it comes to marketing, running businesses and planning events, albeit not on this scale.

Walker used to put on talent shows in his hometown of Grand Rapids. "They thought I was crazy then," he said. "And now my friends and family are just like, 'Oh, Kevin's doing something else.' It's not a shocker."

The way Broich sees it, with the job market the way it is for new graduates, starting something new may be the way to go.

"My parents are always supportive of what I do, but I think that they think this one's a little out there," said Broich, who grew up in Plymouth. "But I'm OK with that. They really want to see me succeed, so anything they can do to help me out."

Mohamed, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, is hoping the Midwest Tomato Fest is an idea that takes root and expands. His partners agree.

"What we like about this is we've been able to minimize our costs and set up things with businesses that if it all goes south, we can cancel on most of our expenses," Walker said. "What we see is potential for the next few years. We see something that can grow. We see something that is a lot bigger than just a one-year event.

"I don't know if tomatoes are my life's destiny, but with these two guys, I can definitely see something pretty successful."

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

  • MIDWEST TOMATO FEST

    WHEN: Noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, July 31

    WHERE: Afton Alps recreation area, 6600 Peller Av. S., Hastings (at junction of Hwy. 95 and 70th Street S., south of Afton's Old Village).

    WHAT: Event will feature food, live music and beer tents, culminating with the tomato fight starting at 2 p.m. (schedule subject to change). Special trucks will allow participants to wash up after the battle. Participants (you can also just watch) should wear white, or a swimsuit, to fight.

    COST: $30, which includes live music and all the tomatoes you can throw (must be 18 or older). For information, go to: www.midwesttomatofest.com.

    PREVIEW: To get an idea what this is about, see this YouTube video of La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain: www.tinyurl.com/4448ggq.

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