Lettuce shortage adds side order of purchasing pain to inflation

Restaurants are adding surcharges and ingredient replacements as the price of romaine lettuce triples. But the salad days are not over. There is hope of relief ahead.

First there was the French fry shortage. Now there’s a salad shortage.

Restaurants across the country have been struggling to cope with the shockingly high prices and short supply of both romaine and iceberg lettuce in recent months. And the lettuce they can buy has been lower in quality.

The average price for a box of iceberg on the open market is currently about $67, for example. That same box cost about $14 in 2019.  Similarly, romaine is $63 per box this week, compared with $22.75 the same week in 2019, according to data from foodservice buying co-op Markon.

Some restaurants are switching to alternatives for their wedge salads and salad-based bowls. Others are asking customers to pay a surcharge to help cover costs.

Sign spotted at Greens + the Grain in Minneapolis./Photo courtesy of Haila Maze.

At companies like Denver-based Salad Collective, parent to both the Mad Greens and Snappy Salads brands, high lettuce prices are a problem. Romaine is the center of the plate, said Jeremy Marshall, vice president of operations.

“Our romaine cost has more than doubled recently and we don’t believe we’ve seen the top of the market yet,” he said in an email. But, because he feels availability, quality and pricing will improve soon, the brands have not raised prices for guests.

The Houston-based Salata chain said vendor contracts typically insulate the brand from price fluctuations, but “due to the current limited availability of romaine hearts, our vendor is supplementing our romaine supply with standard romaine at a higher cost,” said Josh Hoyt, senior director of procurement.

The chain has not passed that higher cost on to guests, he added.

Some operators are assuming the lettuce problem is a result of Hurricane Ian’s destruction on the East Coast or California’s drought on the West. But those are not actually the driving factors, according to those in the produce industry. The recent problem is more a result of diseases that have impacted crops this season.

And there’s hope of relief ahead.

But first, a bit of context:

The price of iceberg, romaine and green leaf lettuce has skyrocketed this year as a result of basic supply and demand, explains Mark Shaw, VP of operations for Markon, which is based in Salinas, Calif., a region dubbed America’s salad bowl because so much of the country’s lettuce is grown there.

But the sharp increase in price didn’t start this year. It began during the pandemic, when volatility and supply chain issues caused farmers to rethink what they were planting. And they were not planting as much lettuce.

Less acreage in the ground means less lettuce on the market, which resulted in higher prices.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price per pound of romaine across U.S. cities jumped more than a dollar from January 2020, when it was $2.16 to January 2022, when it reached $3.18. Through 2022 it moderated slightly, but in September, the average price per pound was still $3.

Inflation has had an impact on many types of produce. Earlier this year, there were issues with Idaho potatoes that jacked up prices temporarily.

But the high cost of lettuce was made even more acute this year by another gut punch to farmers this season: Disease.

There were a few, but the one causing the most damage is Impatiens Necrotic Orthotospovirus, known as INSV, which has prevented a large quantity of lettuce to mature, said Chris Valadez, president and CEO of the Grower Shipper Association.

But there’s good news, said Valadez.

The season is winding down, and soon lettuce production will make the seasonal transition to Southern California and Arizona, regions that have not been as impacted by disease.

As a result, lettuce volumes should rebound, Valadez said.

Shaw expects to see prices start to come down around the week of Nov. 14 and into December, and quality will also improve.

And the nation’s salad days will return.

 

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