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Lemon lovers get bitter shock on California drought: Commodities

First it was the surge in beef prices, and then seafood went through the roof. Now you can add lemons to the growing list of ingredients cutting into profit on the menu at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab.

The three Joe’s restaurants, in Washington, Chicago and Las Vegas, use more than 800 lemons a day sliced as garnishes on entrees or juiced for drinks and sauces. A case of 165 lemons costs managing partner Mike Rotolo about $50, up from $30 to $35 in the past year, and many are less juicy than normal.

“This is the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve been at it for at least 25 years,” Rotolo said by telephone from Chicago. “We’re fighting costs on all fronts, with seafood, prime steaks. If we changed our menu every time we had a spike in one of the items we’re buying, it’s just impossible.”

A prolonged drought in California, which grew 91 percent of U.S. lemons this year, contributed to a surge in costs. Wholesale prices almost doubled from a year earlier, and retail lemons are up 36 percent to $2.327 a pound in August, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking them in 1980.

At a time when big Midwest grain crops are contributing to lower global food prices, the lack of rain in the nation’s biggest agricultural state is boosting costs for fresh fruits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts an increase of 5 percent to 6 percent this year, matching expected gains in meats and eggs. Smaller U.S. livestock herds sent retail beef and pork to records this year, and a USDA shrimp index is up 24 percent in a year and the highest since the data starts in 1991.

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