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Blame tomato squeeze on Florida freeze

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Tomato prices have restaurant owners seeing red

By Greg Summers

You don’t have to tell Kelly Gibson the winter of 2009-10 is tied for the fourth coldest in South Carolina history.

And it’s not just here. It’s been just cold and wet across most of the southeast, including Florida.

Gibson knows it whenever one word – tomato – gets mentioned.

Those three syllables can make the owner of the South 200 Drive-In Restaurant grimace, stare at the floor and shake her head.

About 70 percent of the tomatoes that would be harvested in Florida right now were killed by freezing temperatures in December, making what few regular premium tomatoes that can be found carry a premium price.

That cost has restaurant owners and consumers alike seeing red.

Right now, a 20-pound box of tomatoes costs about $42. Last week, the cost was around $27.

In most grocery stores tomatoes by the pound are in the $2.69 to $2.79 price range. Most of these are “hothouse” tomatoes grown in Mexico.

With prices like that, it’s no wonder many restaurant owners are treating tomatoes like gold.

“You don’t have as much trouble finding them as you do paying for them,” said Jimmy Hercheck, owner of Hercheck’s on Meeting Street.

“It’s just outrageous,” said Gibson, whose restaurant uses almost two boxes of tomatoes each week. Gibson has been trying to get tomatoes from different wholesalers, but when all of them come from the same place, she said the options are few.

“We can either quit selling them or eventually go up on the cost of each sandwich,” she said. “Right now you don’t want to do, either. Our business is good and you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.”

Some fast food chains have sliced tomatoes from their menus. 

Wendy’s is no longer automatically including tomatoes in sandwiches; customers have to request them.

Subway has temporarily cut back on the number of tomato slices allowed on each 12-inch sandwich.

Not satisfied with the overall crop quality, Burger King has signs on each cash register that it has discontinued using tomatoes on its sandwiches until it can get a better supply.

However, restaurants with salad bars have no options to deal with the skyrocketing costs and a low supply, said Linda Carter of Gus’s Family Restaurant on South Main Street.

Between a full salad bar, in-house salads, sub sandwiches and burgers, Carter said the popular eatery uses five cases of tomatoes each week.

With many restaurants already watching the bottom line closer than ever, the drastic price increase for tomatoes isn’t helping.

Carter said some restaurants are charging extra for tomatoes. 

“We’d love to be able to get a lower quality tomato,” Carter said. “Believe me, we’ve tried. But those are out of stock, too, because of the demand.”

While grocers haven’t run out, counters are no longer stacked high with tomatoes from the Sunshine State.

On Wednesday, there were less than 2 dozen tomatoes on the counter inside Griswold’s Family Produce on Great Falls Highway.

“It kind of looked like it was going to get better, but then it went back the other way,” said Griswold’s cashier Mellany Belk. “And the ones you do get, the quality isn’t as good right now as you’d like for it to be.”

Belk hopes the worst may be over and the price will eventually ease. However the supply problem won’t ease until March or early April.

The Miami Herald reported this week that fields with tomatoes are not producing crops at the normal rate because of colder temperatures. 

“Until something changes, all we can do is grin and bear it,” Gibson said. “We don’t really have any other choice.”