BIG-TOMATO CONTEST IS RESCUED BY SHOPRITE

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- More than 500 contestants showed up at 47 New Jersey locations of ShopRite Supermarkets here to participate in the 21st annual New Jersey Championship Tomato Weigh-In -- a popular end-of-summer event that the 190-store chain rescued from demise."The contest is uniquely New Jersey, and we're a New Jersey company -- so it was a nice fit," said ShopRite spokeswoman Laura McCafferty.The

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- More than 500 contestants showed up at 47 New Jersey locations of ShopRite Supermarkets here to participate in the 21st annual New Jersey Championship Tomato Weigh-In -- a popular end-of-summer event that the 190-store chain rescued from demise.

"The contest is uniquely New Jersey, and we're a New Jersey company -- so it was a nice fit," said ShopRite spokeswoman Laura McCafferty.

The retailer decided to assume co-sponsorship of the event -- which awards prizes for the biggest tomatoes grown in the state -- last year, after learning that it would be discontinued due to the death of its founder, Joe Heimbold.

Although members of Heimbold's family had assumed responsibility for last year's event, they had announced that the event would not be continued after 1998.

"We heard about the [problem], and since we're a family-oriented company, we decided to form a partnership with Joe Heimbold Jr., [the founder's son]," said McCafferty.

The event was worth saving, because of its unique place in the state's history, according to McCafferty.

"It's kind of a cultural institution around here," she said. "People have competed in the contest for years, and there have been lots of articles and editorials written on it across the state.

"We have some real tomato worshipers in our area -- we are, after all, the Garden State," she added.

The day-long contest, held Saturday, Aug. 29, started with morning weigh-ins at each of the 47 designated ShopRite locations -- at least one per county -- and then moved to a mall in Ocean Township, N.J., where the winners from each of those locations participated in the finals.

ShopRite gave away more than $2,500 in gift certificates to the winners -- $1,000 to the first-place winner; $250 to the 21st-place winner, in honor of the event's 21st year in existence; $100 each to the 5th-, 10th- and 15th-place winners; and $25 to the remaining winners. The certificates were valid for groceries at any ShopRite store.

"The contest participants tend to be very competitive," said McCafferty, adding that it was the fourth win for this year's winner, George Bucsko of Clifton, N.J.

"George's tomato was green and ugly, but it weighed in at 4.95 pounds -- more than a pound heavier than the second-place winner," she said.

Also on hand at the finals were a chef demonstrating tomato-based recipes, a trivia expert providing tomato facts, and representatives from the state Department of Agriculture and the Community Food Bank.

Although McCafferty said there is "no way to measure" the return on sponsoring such an event in terms of store traffic and sales, she said that the benefits of saving the competition are obvious.

"Good will among the community, and especially the gardeners in the state, is certainly a benefit," she said.

During previous years, businesses -- usually plant nurseries, garden centers and the like -- paid a fee to be designated as an official weighing center, and awarded prizes to winners who brought their tomatoes into that site during the preliminary round. A $1,000 grand prize, financed by the fees, was then awarded to the top winner.