Tomatoes in short supply

Tomatoes in short supply

March 5th, 2011 by Brittany Cofer in Business Around the Region

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press Mojo Burrito hand mixes their pico de gallo. Recently prices for tomatoes have increased and businesses like Mojo Burrito have felt the impact.

A cold snap earlier this year in the farming areas of Mexico, Florida, California and Texas is affecting the produce supply and price for local restaurants, grocers and distributors.

At Mojo Burrito in East Brainerd, where it's not uncommon to go through a couple of 25-pound cases of tomatoes a day, the produce shortage is making a dent in the restaurant's bottom line.

Jason Gill, general manager for the East Brainerd location, said cases of tomatoes that once were between $12 and $15 each now cost close to $50.

"It has caused a lot of problems," he said. "We've had to send a lot back and even put them out in the sun to ripen. Being as tomatoes are a big part of our menu, we've just kind of had to keep our portions level and monitor our waste rather than taking them off our menu because they're a major part of just about everything on our menu."

Avocados also have been in short supply for the burrito restaurant, with some of the locations going without guacamole for a day or two because they haven't been available, he said. The shortages have been going on for the past month locally.

Lee Pittman, president of Dixie Produce, which distributes produce in seven states in the Southeast, said the end is in sight.

"I think we're four weeks away from some real relief," he said.

Spinach and lettuce yields in California also have been affected by the unseasonably cold temperatures earlier in the year, Pittman said.

Instead of getting 1,000 boxes of lettuce from any given farm, he's receiving 80 to 100.

The situation is worse for spinach. Pittman typically sells 2,500 to 3,000 boxes of spinach a day. Lately, it's been 80 a week.

"I've got some mad spinach customers right now," he said.

But it's not affecting everyone the same.

Whereas tomatoes are only available upon request at Wendy's restaurants across the country, places like Whole Foods, which bought Greenlife Grocery in 2010, aren't experiencing problems getting enough tomatoes for customer demand, Whole Foods spokeswoman Darrah Horgan said.

At Bi-Lo, costs are up but are not being passed along to customers, said Bob Dennome, director of floral and produce. He anticipates costs will come down in the next four to six weeks as the company begins supplying spring crops to customers.

For local Hardee's restaurants, the situation is a slight inconvenience but not much more so than typical wintertime produce hurdles.

Brenda Eckard, vice president of marketing for J&S Restaurants Inc., which has 42 Hardee's franchise locations in the region, said they're having to pay a little more to get tomatoes into the stores, but it hasn't been enough to change product prices.

She said if the situation worsens, there may be a point when tomatoes aren't included on certain items. But for now the chain isn't pulling the produce.

"It's our Southern states where most of our produce is grown, the ones in the sunnier climates, and you never know when they're going to experience a freeze," she said. "This has been an unusual winter, though, and you never know what's going to happen."