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When Limes Attack

April 22, 2014

Years ago I was talking with Mr. C down in Miami Beach about the price of asparagus. He was a chef down there at a fancy restaurants, and he had to pay through the nose to get asparagus off season. But it was a popular menu item with his customers, and he couldn’t take it off the menu.

Here’s the thing that a lot of restaurant goers haven’t quite internalized. The prices restaurants have to pay for their ingredients fluctuates. Sometimes wildly. But by and large, the prices on menus remain the same week in and week out. Chefs and restaurant owners will say that they simply eat the cost of these overruns. But those who are successful in the long run charge enough of a premium to stay afloat.

Let me say this another way. When customers demand salads in winter, it often raises the price restaurants have to charge for all their menu items.

My position has always been that it’s madness for a restaurant to lock itself into a pantry of ingredients for 52 weeks a year. Even changing up a menu quarterly means a kitchen is committed to buying the same grocery list for thirteen weeks in a row, regardless of market conditions. Menus should change weekly, if not daily. But that’s an entirely separate post.

Because it’s one thing if the price of asparagus goes through the roof. But it’s another thing entirely when we’re approaching Cinco de Mayo and limes cost more than meat.

Recently I was at ShopRite and casually put a lime into my shopping basket. I only got a quick look at the price. All I saw was “X limes for $Y” and didn’t quite make the calculation on the price per lime in my head.

Thankfully, I had only wanted one as a garnish to a springtime gin and tonic, because that one little lime rang up as $1.25. It wasn’t even a big lime. Apparently the sign read, “4 limes for $5.”

The situation is getting really bad.

NPR reported last month that it’s really a confluence of factors that involve bad rainfall, insect infestation and Mexican drug cartels hijacking shipments. And it has led to some places taking drastic steps. Could you imagine a taco being served with a lemon wedge? It’s happening. In California (of all places). My God.

At least one can always swap asparagus out for another vegetable, but lime is indispensable in Mexican cuisine, a handful of classic cocktails, Thai food, and elsewhere. There is no substitute. Lemon doesn’t have the same kick.

In this case one cannot suggest that a Mexican restaurant could save itself the headaches of paying for these grossly inflated limes by simply changing its menu when the price of the fruit becomes untenable. However, if the restaurant was in the habit of adjusting its menu weekly, I suppose these inflated prices could more easily be passed on to customers (with an explanation).

There was a place back in Berkeley that made its own pasta from Meyer lemons, which were occasionally hard to come by. They posted a sign on their door offering to trade pasta for these special and precious lemons. I hear there are places making similar offers these days with limes.

The good news is that just last week I still was able to find limes at Trader Joe’s for fifty cents each. I don’t know how long that will hold out, or how they are even able to manage this seemingly impossible feat. But hopefully it is long enough so that I can get in a gin and tonic or two.

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Don’t forget to sign up for the Tour de FroYo which is coming up this Sunday. It’s free and open to everyone. Even lurkers. Especially lurkers. Don’t be shy. These events are always a lot of fun. Details can be found here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. EPT permalink
    April 22, 2014 11:20 am

    Any food product that comes into short supply is an issue for a restaurant. Restaurants like to maintain a 40% food cost at most. Those that sell alcohol have an edge as there is usually a big markup on alcohol. I have to bring up this example, in NYC many restaurants on their cocktail menu state “Old Overhalt” ( a rye whiskey) as an ingredient. Well a liter of that costs me about $15, which is about the price of a single cocktail in NYC. But I digress.

    If one wants a particular product e.g., limes, just suck it up a buy it…that’s the bottom line.

    BTW, I grow my own Meyer lemons in Delmar, yeah it’s totally possible and they are damn good. Still have a couple left from a mid winter harvest and the tree is budding again now. My mid winter harvest yielded 14 lemons and they last quite well since they are picked fresh.

  2. April 22, 2014 8:18 pm

    I bought limes last week for $1.50 each. I cried a little, but dammit I needed a gin & tonic. It was sorta worth it.

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