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Romaine ruined, salad costs soar

From coast to coast, restaurant diners are being saved the decision of whether to order the house salad or the Caesar.

El Nino rains wiped out the romaine lettuce crop on many farms in California, forcing some restaurants _ including all Wendy's fast-food sites _ to remove Caesar salads from the menu.

Other restaurants are managing to find romaine at premium prices. While some, like a restaurant in Greenwich, Conn., are adding a $2 surcharge for Caesar salads, several restaurant chains say they're simply absorbing the extra cost.

"It's killing us," said George Lewis, president and chief operating officer of Johnny Leverock's Seafood House, which has seven restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. "I'm projecting this will cost the company about $10,000, but if you put a surcharge on Caesar salads, even if it's only 25 cents, there will be some customer reluctance. Since the produce people tell me the price will be coming down shortly, it's better to eat the higher price for a month."

In February, heavy rains doused fields in California, which supplies nearly 80 percent of the nation's romaine. The rain delayed planting or killed seedlings. And many of the crops that did survive became susceptible to fungus because of the standing water.

While other types of lettuce also were affected, romaine was the hardest hit.

The result: Wholesale prices of romaine shot from about $10 a case to $50, according to a survey by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

"The people that weren't affected are making a killing," said Sarah Delea, a spokeswoman for United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association in Arlington, Va.

Times like these test buyer-supplier relationships, said Tim Gannon, senior vice president and co-founder of Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse Inc.

"We don't alter our prices or menus at all when surges like this happen," said Gannon, who has seen romaine priced recently as high as $60 a case. "But we almost pulled romaine from the menu because even at the high price, we didn't like the product. When you have very short supply and very high prices, you have to depend on your relationships with produce people. And you stick with a guy who takes care of you."

Outback, which has 459 restaurants, buys about 10,000 cases of romaine a week.

Grocery stores also felt the pinch.

On Tuesday, romaine was selling for a daunting $2.99 a head at Albertson's and Publix stores in St. Petersburg.

But Michael Read, a spokesman for Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's Inc., said he already is seeing a slight improvement in the quality and cost. "The crops are coming around," he said.

The short supply should end in a few weeks as the next crop of lettuce makes its way to stores and restaurants. Romaine usually takes three to four months to grow, Delea said.

In the meantime, many diners with a taste for Caesar will be out of luck.

At the 370 Ruby Tuesday locations nationwide, small signs on each table announce "El Nino Strikes Again!" followed by an explanation why the Caesar salad is temporarily off the menu. The chicken Caesar is the most popular salad entree.

"I think everyone understands," said Jeff Frost, a manager-in-training at a Ruby Tuesday in Boynton Beach. "It's just one more thing that people are blaming on El Nino."

Visitors to any of the 4,500 Wendy's restaurants nationwide also will see signs at the cash registers and drive-through windows explaining why the side Caesar salads are not available.

Ana Pava had hoped for a Caesar salad but settled for the regular side salad made with iceberg lettuce at a Wendy's in West Palm Beach. She regretted it.

"I'm not a vegetable eater, but (Caesar) is a salad that gives people a sauce so I can eat it," she said, turning up her nose at the untouched iceberg salad on her tray. "I got it, but I'm not going to eat it. I'll give it to my husband."

_ Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report.