Wednesday, April 25, 2018
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Bars, restaurants face lime shortage just before Cinco de Mayo

This week, restaurant owner Nick Pappas called an emergency meeting of his top people about a matter souring his bottom line.

Lime-ageddon.

A severe shortage of limes nationwide has caused prices to skyrocket, in many cases fivefold. The timing couldn't be worse. Monday is Cinco de Mayo, lime's day in the sun.

"It's definitely shocking,'' said Pappas, who owns FlameStone American Grill in Oldsmar and Besa Grill in Clearwater. "I've never seen a rise in a commodity go so high so quickly.''

The Great Lime Crisis of 2014 has pushed a case of about 200 limes from $25 to $120, putting the squeeze on restaurant owners who use the green fruit generously in dishes and drinks. Even Publix, which often advertises three limes for a buck, is selling them for 79 cents each.

Point the blame at Mexico, the main U.S. supplier of limes. A combination of factors there has pushed up prices of persian and key limes, from bad weather and flooding to drug cartels hijacking lime trucks and extorting money from growers.

Rather than pass the price increase onto customers, many local bars and restaurants are sucking up the cost, sometimes at a loss of hundreds of dollars per week.

"We make all of our margarita mix with fresh limes, so it's costing us a lot more,'' said Chris Rivas, owner of Urban Cantina, which has two locations in Tampa.

Rivas estimates he is paying about $800 more a month for limes, and the ones he's getting are sometimes puny and dry. Finding good limes can be a "full-time job,'' he said, describing a day when he went looking in vain for limes at four grocery stores.

To lower his lime consumption, Rivas has substituted lemons for limes wherever possible. Until further notice, glasses of water get a yellow citrus garnish, not a green one.

Several area restaurants are asking customers, "Do you really need a lime in that Corona or rum and Coke?'' At the Green Lemon in Tampa, instead of getting a wedge in their drink, customers are getting just a piece of one.

"It's outrageous,'' assistant manager Heather Salvadore said of the shortage. "We used to place a lime on every dish, but now we only do it upon request.''

Lime lovers have turned to social media to voice their dismay, some dubbing it Lime-ageddon or Lime-pocalypse and calling on drug lords to stop the madness.

"What happens when life doesn't even give you limes?'' one woman wrote on Twitter. "#limepocalypse.''

One Mexican restaurant in California resorted to offering customers a margarita for 25 cents if they brought in a bag of limes. The owner posted a sign: "WE WANT YOUR LIMES.''

The shortage, while centered in Mexico, has roots in South Florida, which for decades produced about half of all limes consumed in the United States.

That changed, however, in 2000 when federal and state officials mandated that any lime tree infected with citrus canker be burned and not replanted with a lime tree for five years. The order destroyed about 3,500 acres of lime trees, effectively killing the multimillion-dollar industry.

"It had a profound economic influence on the local economy,'' said Jonathan Crane, tropical fruit crop specialist for the University of Florida. "You had people lose their businesses and livelihood.''

As Florida farmers replaced lime trees with vegetable crops and ornamental trees, Mexico stepped in to fill the void but with smaller, less juicy fruit, he said. The prices were so low it wasn't feasible for local growers to reintroduce limes.

While hot and humid Florida remains an ideal spot for growing limes, Crane doubts the current shortage will jump start the industry. By the time trees start yielding fruit, he expects the prices will have long stabilized.

"Can we grow limes again? Of course we can,'' he said. "But is it viable?''

For now, most bar owners and restaurateurs are waiting out the price increase, much like they have for meat and other products. They expect the price won't return to $25 a case any time soon, but it shouldn't stay this high forever.

At FlameStone and Besa Grill, the staff has employed Operation Save Limes. No waste. Roll the limes before cutting them to get the most juice. Ask the customer before garnishing.

If the shortage persists, Pappas said he might give diners a free order of guacamole for bringing in a bag of limes from their yard. Beyond that, he just hopes for relief soon.

"We are grinning and bearing it. We expect these highs and lows in the food industry, but it seems like everything is through the roof,'' he said. "I never thought we'd be having an emergency meeting on limes.''

Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.

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