Freezing weather knocks ‘T’ out of BLTs

By Gregory Karp
Posted Feb. 15 at 3:31 p.m.

Freezing weather across the South and Mexico recently damaged such crops as tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, leading to shortages and price increases. It’s left some restaurants scrambling to revamp such staples as sandwiches and salads.

“It’s sort of like the perfect storm — Florida, Texas and Mexico all get hit with unseasonably cold weather, which decreased the yields of tomatoes and cucumbers,” said Gary Karp, executive vice president for Technomic, a food market-research firm. “It’s going to take about 60 days or so before new tomatoes and other replacement products can come to market.”

Meanwhile, prices of some produce items have doubled, if you can get them at all, he said.

Wendy’s restaurants late last week stopped placing sliced tomatoes on hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, except by request, spokeswoman Kitty Munger said. That’s because the freeze impacted the quality of tomatoes and the quantity available, she said.

Wendy’s officials were told the shortage will continue until mid-April, when a new crop will be available. But they don’t know yet when restaurants would resume routinely putting tomatoes on sandwiches, she said.

Wendy’s salads, however, are not affected. They use smaller grape tomatoes, and the restaurant’s sources were unaffected, she said.

The shortage might mean the famous BLT — bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich — becomes a BL some places. “Operators are going to have to be very creative,” Karp said. “If they can get them, they’ll probably slice them thinner.”

Subway sandwich restaurants have seen a shortage of tomatoes and green bell peppers. So it “has opened its specification to include additional varieties, shapes and sizes and will also received produce from additional growing regions,” spokesman Les Winograd said.

Supermarket chain Supervalu, which owns Jewel-Osco stores in the Chicago market, is hearing daunting reports from growers, a spokeswoman said.

“Some growers are reporting full crop losses,” spokeswoman Karen May said. The result will be produce shortages in stores for six to eight weeks. Products affected include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, eggplant, peppers and zucchini, she said. “We will continue to negotiate with growers to receive the best price possible on produce,” she said, adding that pricing decisions are made on a market-by-market basis.

For tomatoes, in particular, it’s unusual to have freezes in Florida and Mexico in the same year, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

“Never in my lifetime have I see both areas affected by freezes at the same time,” he said. The Florida freeze in early December will result in about half the yield of a normal year, and damage from the western Mexico freeze early this month is still being assessed, Brown said.

Prices for tomatoes have recently doubled from about $15 for 25-pounds of Florida tomatoes to more than $30, Brown said.

The good news is the shortage for tomatoes is likely to ebb in late March, when Florida gets its next crop of tomatoes, he said.

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One comment:

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