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Tomato shortage puts pinch on local restaurants, grocers
Mestizo Southwest Grill manager Oscar Saenz on Tuesday washes a case of tomatoes that will be used for pico de gallo in Gainesville. Below-normal winter temperatures in Florida have caused a tomato shortage. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Many local residents know tomatoes in March are nothing compared to fresh, local tomatoes in the summer. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need the occasional tomato to top a sandwich or throw in a taco.

After cold temperatures in Florida, though, there has been a nationwide shortage of the fruit, causing prices to skyrocket. Florida growers, who provide much of the tomato crop this time of year, lost some 70 percent of their crop during January’s prolonged cold snap.

Now, local restaurants and grocers are paying the price.

“We have to find tomatoes at any cost,” said Oscar Saenz, manager at Mestizo Southwest Grill in Gainesville.

The restaurant needs tomatoes for just about everything on the menu, especially for salsas and pico de gallo, and workers go through about five or six cases a week, or more than 300 tomatoes.

Saenz said the restaurant gets many of its tomatoes from the Atlanta Farmers Market. They haven’t had trouble finding tomatoes, but the high price is hurting their profit margin since menu prices haven’t gone up.

“We just have to be very careful about not wasting tomatoes,” Saenz said.

Ed Waller of Green’s Grocery in Gainesville, said the store is paying double the normal cost for tomatoes, about $33 for a 25-pound box. He said the situation is starting to improve, but slowly.

“They’re still just not economical, and if you lose a couple out of the batch, you’re done,” Waller said.

Increased prices for the produce are passed along to consumers, but Waller said the store is just breaking even on sales by the time they throw out any bad produce. Waller said tomatoes right now are selling for $2.19 a pound.

The store hasn’t had any problems getting tomatoes, though.

“It’s just wanting to buy them or not because ... people aren’t going to pay, you know, $4 and $5 a pound, and that’s been the problem.”

The grocer gets tomatoes regionally, with many normally coming from Florida at this time of year. Later in the year, as the weather warms up, more are supplied locally. Green’s Grocery goes through about a case a day of tomatoes, and two cases a day during the summer, Waller said.

He said he hasn’t noticed a decrease in quality, but it has been a problem for some. Saenz said tomatoes he was getting weren’t quite up to par, as he pulled out a bruised, not-quite-ripe specimen.

Florida’s unseasonably cold weather scarred the tomatoes, damaged their vines and forced many farmers to delay their harvest.

The average national wholesale price for a 25-pound box of tomatoes is now $30, up from $6.50 a year ago. Florida’s growers would normally ship about 25 million pounds of tomatoes a week; earlier this month, they were shipping less than a quarter of that, according to Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange, a tomato farmer cooperative in Maitland, Fla.

Florida is the only place where tomatoes are grown on a large scale in the U.S. during winter. California doesn’t grow them until later in the year, and much of that state’s crop is used for processed foods, such as ketchup, sauce and juice. Other states grow tomatoes in greenhouses year-round, but Florida’s winter tomato crop is by far the largest.

Some parts of Florida saw average temperatures so low that this January and February were among the 10 coldest on record, according to the National Weather Service.

“Anecdotally, from talking to some real long-timers, as well as people who watch the weather, this has been the most extended cold in maybe 60 years,” said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Industry estimates suggest that about two-thirds of the tomato crop in the major southwestern production region was destroyed, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Experts are expecting recovery to begin by mid-April.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.