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Lehigh's Mr. Tomato Man adds color to flea market

September 12, 2012
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

You can't live in Lehigh Acres very long before you hear people talking about "Mr. Tomato Man," an affectionate term for a man who just turned 70 and sells of all things - tomatoes - at his Lehigh Flea Market.

He's probably sold thousands upon thousands of tomatoes during his long career as a produce vendor.

"You get 'em here and you know they're fresh off the vine," said Oscar Perez, Lehigh's Mr. Tomato Man.

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Mr. Tomato Man, Oscar Perez, is a fixture at the Lehigh Flea Market.

Perez, who lives in Alva, travels the roads to Immokalee and back to Lehigh with his truck filled with produce. And a lot of customers keep coming back because they can depend on Perez to provide them with fresh produce.

"Not only is it fresh, but it's cheaper than in the supermarkets," said Perez, a man whose gleaming gold teeth coverings sets him apart. He is often teased and kidded about how much he's worth, just for the gold coverings on his teeth.

Perez has been working with produce for all of his life. He began as a child harvesting produce with his parents who he said were migrants who traveled to the Midwest to pick fruit and vegetables.

And for a time later when Perez was older, he lived in Texas and picked cotton, but said he didn't make enough a day so he came to Florida.

"I used to get $5 a day to pick cotton and when I came to Florida, I made a lot more, $8 a day," he laughed.

Perez is the patriarch of a large family. He and his late wife, Maria, have five grown children and 12 grandchildren and twins on the way. When his wife was alive, she was the cashier for her husband's business. She passed away in September in 2010.

Today, two of his grandchildren help out when they can. One is Daniel Perez, 18, a student at Edison College in Fort Myers. He works with his grandfather every other week and during mornings before he has to catch a bus to get to college. The other grandson who helps at the market is Damion Perez, who is 13 and learning the trade from the expert, his grandpa.

Oscar Perez has been selling all kinds of things including furniture, gadgets, glassware you name it at his business inside the building at 1303 Homestead Road But now he concentrates only on selling fresh produce.

Perez says he believes he moved into the building in 1970 and it may have already been some vendors selling other things. But they are gone and new vendors have moved into the building and others outside.

Perez also says he believes the building was used for years for inside events of the Lehigh Acres Spring Festival which occurs every March as a way to bid farewell to snowbirds that have spent the season in Lehigh.

Perez scratches his head and wonders where the years have gone. But he's a witty guy and has made hundreds of friends who know him as Mr. Tomato Man.

"Not long ago, there was a woman in here looking for produce and her young son, couldn't have been that old, asked his mom where Mr. Tomato man was," Perez recalled.

"She pointed at me and the little child said 'he doesn't look like a tomato' I get teased all the time," Perez said.

Those days of working with his parents traveling north each harvest time to pick fruit and produce cost him from getting a full education. He said he believes it was the ninth grade when he quit school because it just didn't work for migrants.

Today, Oscar Perez, that young migrant kid, has a grandson going to college to study to become an engineer. And Perez beams with pride.

"I helped to raise them all and I enjoyed it. I always loved playing with my grandchildren and it is great to see them grow up and go into fields that interest them," he said. His family lives in Southwest Florida and there is a closeness that Perez says he enjoys.

Perez is his best advertisement. By word of mouth over the years, residents of Lehigh know he was the first to ever sell produce. He assures all his customers that if it's grown in Immokalee, he will have it at his market.

"I work with a half dozen farmers over there and I go over and get much of their produce and bring it back. People can buy it within 24 hours after it came off the vine," he laughed. "You can't get much fresher than that."

But not everyone understands the seasons.

"We have two seasons down here in Southwest Florida. That means that we have two harvests and when certain things are not ready to be picked, you have to wait," he laughed.

"I don't sell furniture anymore. I can't lift and move stuff like I used to be able to do. So even though I have a few things in here to sell, most of what I deal with today is fresh produce at a fair price," he said.

"The next harvest for us now is in November," he said. "And the farmers in Immokalee will be waiting for me to come over and load up my produce," he said.

When is the Tomato Man going to retire?

Laughing again, he said that's an easy question, "I'm going to retire when I get rich and it's not that time yet."

The current day recession is no stranger to Perez, who said it was in 1970 when he was in Texas and jobs were hard to find in another recession and if you found one, you didn't get much in pay, he said.

You can't miss Perez' market. It faces the Microtel Inn & Suites and is next to the Lee County Sheriff's Bravo Substation. Also next door on the other side of the parking lot is the Senior Center.

Oscar's market is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., although he admits he sometimes stays open longer because it is so lonesome at home without his wife.

"Or if the place is busy, I'll stay open for my customers," he said.

"But being here is better than being home and looking at the walls," he said.

Perez has been in business for so long that he has a following of customers and sometimes he says someone doesn't have the money on them and he tells them to take the produce and pay him another day.

"And they do, I don't have to write it down. People treat me good," he said.

Perez is gifted, too, inasmuch as he is Hispanic and can speak both English and Spanish fluently.

"I'd say my customers are half Spanish and half English," he said. "He often has to translate for some customers to talk to others.

"I just think in both languages," he laughed.



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