Rising lime prices leave sour taste with restaurateurs

A huge bump in the cost of limes is eating into profits at area restaurants and bars.

Prices for the green citrus used in various food recipes, especially Mexican dishes, as well as in cocktails have about tripled this year.

“We were paying about $38, $39 per case and now we’re paying $121,” says T. Duncan Mitchell, the owner and manager of Chapel Tavern, a bar located on South Virginia Street in Midtown Reno. “We just wrote our summer menu and there’s not as many lime drinks on there as we would like.”

Other than tweaking its menu of cocktails, the tavern is taking the hit.

“If we make less money, we make less money,” says Mitchell. “We’re not going to raise drink prices. But if it continues into next season we may have to.”

Other establishments are considering similar minor changes. Legends Grill, Sports & Spirits and The Brewer’s Cabinet host $1 taco specials on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, respectively. Usually, the tacos are served with half a lime, says Michael Connolly, co-owner of both Reno restaurants.

“When one lime costs a dollar and you put half on the taco that’s half the price of the taco right there,” says Connolly. “We’re almost losing money on the tacos.”

Connolly says the restaurants will likely stop serving the tacos with limes and add the citrus only upon request.

“A lot of time, the garnish goes to waste so we’ll start giving them to people who ask for them,” he says. “We’ve done that with tomatoes in the past, when the price of tomatoes went through the roof.”

Lime prices have skyrocketed for several reasons. California is suffering a drought and crops there were struck with bacteria that affected small citrus such as tangerines and limes.

The infestation hit crops in Mexico, too, where the vast majority of limes are imported from. A bigger problem there was storms late last year, which decimated yields.

“Bad weather in December caused blooms to drop,” says Mike Catalano, a produce specialist and category manager with US Foods Inc., a food distributor in Reno. “Blooms turn into limes. So you knock blooms off, there are no limes.”

Catalano says limes from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere have helped boost supply somewhat, but they are more expensive to import so they haven’t relieved the pressure on prices.

Catalano says he is now selling about 25 cases a week, while he sells double that when prices are lower.

The Mexican drug trade is allegedly contributing to the pricing problem, too.

“The biggest thing is the drug cartels in Mexico,” says Liz Lightfoot, produce coordinator at Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno. “They’ve been transporting drugs with the limes and there’s been a crackdown. Distributors aren’t willing to send the product because it gets confiscated. The same thing happened with bananas before.”

Great Basin carries only organic produce so the grocery co-op is even more constrained than other sellers or users of limes. But Lightfoot says it hasn’t hurt business too much since supply has about equaled demand, or the customers willing to pay a higher price.

Catalano and Chapel Tavern’s Mitchell said they’ve been told lime supplies should rise and prices drop by June, after Cinco de Mayo, the May 5 Spanish holiday widely celebrated in the United States.

In the meantime, some restaurants and bars are making due with a few changes.

“They’re not putting a slice of lime in that Corona anymore,” says Catalano. “Or they’re going to lime juice or lemons.”

But others say there’s nothing like the real thing, no matter how pricey it gets.

“Lemons and limes are too different. Limes are more acidic and floral,” says Mitchell. “You clearly can’t substitute one for the other.”


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