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Published March 14, 2010, 11:33 PM

You say tomato, they say expensive, as freeze wipes out half of Florida crop

Tomatoes are going to be hard to find at some restaurants and more expensive at the grocery store for some time. Because of rotten winter weather in the growing regions, supplies have plummeted.

Tomatoes are going to be hard to find at some restaurants and more expensive at the grocery store for some time.

Because of rotten winter weather in the growing regions, supplies have plummeted.

Florida’s Department of Agriculture said prolonged cold temperatures wiped out 80 percent of the state’s winter tomato crop.

So, what does that mean to tomato lovers in the Northland? The new crop won’t reach stores here until April.

You can see the result in local fast food restaurants.

For example, food chains such as Wendy’s International are not putting tomatoes on sandwiches and salads unless requested. They’ve been posting signs at both locations in Grand Forks.

“This store is not putting them on any sandwich except the Bacon and Blue because that’s how it’s advertised,” said Ashley Dodge, assistant manager at Wendy’s on South Washington Street. “So far, customers are not too upset.”

“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” said Denny Lynch, Wendy’s spokesman. “This time of the year, Florida is typically responsible for producing most of the tomatoes in the United States. They are grown elsewhere, but you’ve got to be willing to pay for them.”

Subway typically purchases a specific type of tomato from Florida.

The sandwich chain said it’s experimenting with different varieties or using smaller slices.

“Switching to a new product or source poses a risk for these chains because customers could perceive it as lower quality,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry research firm Technomic Inc.

Consumers also will feel the price pinch at grocery stores.

Bert Galarza, produce manager at Wally’s Supermarket in Grafton, N.D., said he’ll receive his quantity to sell, but the Florida freeze will be reflected in the price.

“I’m seeing about $29 for a 25-pound case of Romas,” Galarza said. “Last week, it was $22, and days before that, it was $18. Our customers are aware of what’s going on, so it’s no surprise to them.”

The average wholesale price for a case of tomatoes is $30, up $6.50 from a year ago.

The Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange, a tomato farmer co-op in Maitland, Fla., said it’s shipping less than a quarter of the 25 million pounds it normally ships in a week.

Rick Hogan, produce manager at Hugo’s, said with the exception of heirloom tomatoes, prices have been going up.

“Anytime you have something affecting supply and demand, it tightens up the pricing,” Hogan said. “We hope we can weather the storm as we always do, but when you take something out of the mix, it affects other products.”

Hogan said shoppers will also notice the price of grapes going up for the next month. He said the earthquake in Chile took power from the packing houses where grapes are kept until they’re shipped.

The Florida freeze also took a toll on green beans, sweet corn, onions, eggplant and squash.

Most of California’s tomato crop, used for processed foods such as ketchup, isn’t grown until later in the year. The high price and demand for Florida tomatoes in the U.S. has many wholesalers buying from Mexico.

“You try to get an extra piece out of every tomato if you can,” said Bill Murphy, a Chicago restaurant owner. “You don’t toss them around like they’re pennies, you toss them around like they were quarters.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1262; (800) 477-6572, ext. 262; or send e-mail to jjohnson2@gfherald.com.

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