MARTIN COUNTY — There’s only one stop sign between the Beeline Highway (State Road 710) on the scenic Martin Grade (SR 714) and the western edge of Martin’s coastal communities. Parked there on a patch of gravel where County Road 609 meets the Grade, in one or another of his antique cars — selling produce, spicy boiled peanuts and other delicacies — you’ll find the scenic personality of “Johnny Tomato,” as he calls himself.
It’s a four-way stop with those new flashing red lights on the signs, so you can’t miss spotting him on weekends. This highly trafficked junction has been a very good spot for the Jensen Beach man. He finds peace, satisfaction and even a little joy in constantly meeting folks who stop to take him up on his offering of free samples of his fresh, bottled Georgia peaches. He’ll let you sample the peanuts, too — especially if you’re a novice, so make sure you ask how to eat them first, if you are!
He’s originally from New Jersey, he said, and no, “Tomato” is not his real last name, which he declined to give.
“I go by Johnny Tomato. I’ve been here for 12 years, 12 glorious years,” he said.
“I started out on this corner as a hot dog vendor ... and then from there I incorporated smoothies to bring the freshness into the deal. And the smoothies were bigger than the hot dogs.” He had a bit of competition at first, though, so all was not peaches and cream on the corner when he started.
“There were some people that were here, and they were giving people (expletive) product, and I started bringing out good product, and then the two of us were here doing the same exact thing. And finally they got a little violent with me...”
He didn’t want things to escalate, but they did. “Then finally I had them removed. They were selling strawberries and peaches before me. I just saw what they were doing and I wanted to do better, and I did,” Johnny stated matter-of-factly. “And so then, I’ve been here ever since. Since 2009.
“In summertime we do the fresh Georgia peaches and in wintertime we do Plant City strawberries,” he explained.
“I always have the jars. I started with all the jars about five year ago. They’re not canned — that’s all fresh from the farm. They’re fresh Georgia peaches, just in cane sugar and water,” he explained.
“Yeah, so that’s how I did it, man. So I’ve been fortunate … the only thing I’m missing is that tree.”
“Well, you know they say... about ‘the man on the side of the road sittin’ under the tree’? I didn’t get the tree.”
Then Johnny got to the car part.
“I have about three or four different vehicles I bring out here, too. I’ve got one I’m still working on, a 1981 Cadillac limo hot rod; that’ll be coming out within the next six months. I just purchased a 1993 Mercedes-Benz that I’m wrapping now and that’s going to be a specialty. That’s all vinyl wrap” on the convertible he was driving Saturday, Sept. 12. He did it himself.
That’s a sidelight of Tomato’s ... “I’ve done a lot of different projects for people. John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted was a customer I served here, the Budweiser Girls, the mayor of Martin County...”
The 48-year-old, who was sporting a brightly colored mohawk, said he makes a lot of connections just by being at this corner. He’s there usually all weekends when the weather’s nice, but normally every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine.
“All my customers are great, nice, pleasant people,” he said.
Johnny “Tomato” has been through a lot in life, though, he said, where addictions “had a hold on my adult life for 20 years. I’m a repeat felon. I celebrate five years clean and sober this January and I wouldn’t put anything in front of it.
“I love myself and my new god-given life. I believe I’m on that corner to better myself and others.”