Call them what you will, but tomatoes have a new descriptor right now thanks to a recent extended cold snap in Florida: rare.
"They're very scarce, very scarce. The rounds, the romas, the cherries - all hard to get," said Neil Bornstein, vice president of Sam Okun Produce Co., a downtown Toledo wholesaler that supplies hundreds of stores and restaurants across metro Toledo.
He said he is paying about $40 for a 25-pound box of tomatoes, about double the normal price.
The problem is weather.
A January cold spell in Florida ruined about 70 percent of that state's winter tomato crop, along with peppers, cucumbers, and corn. And the timing couldn't have been worse, because it comes when Florida is one of the few areas domestically able to supply one of the nation's most ubiquitous fruits - one that is a staple of salads, salsas, condiments, and other culinary delights.
The effect on restaurants and grocery store shelves has been quick, and costly.
"The market price is going very high, but we'll pay what we have to pay," said Salvador Rocha, manager of El Camino Real Restaurant in west Toledo. "We're doing basi-cally the same thing as always, but we are cutting down a little bit on the portions on the side dishes that customers request."
Produce retailers like Monnette's Market Place in Sylvania saw their tomato sales cut in half as retail prices for their best-selling tomatoes went as high as $3.49 per pound. The price is less than half that amount now but changes daily, produce manager Clinton Swain said.
Sam Okun Produce, a Toledo wholesaler that supplies hundreds of stores and restaurants, is paying about double the normal price for tomatoes like these.
"It cut the amount we were selling in half or more," Mr. Swain said. Most customers didn't complain because they knew what the weather had done, he said.
One commodities price measure in Florida has the price this week at five times what it was a year ago.
Some fast-food restaurants have posted signs indicating that tomatoes are either available only upon request, or not at all, or they're switching suppliers temporarily to meet their customers' demands.
"We're offering tomatoes only upon request in all of our U.S. stores," explained Denny Lynch, a spokesman for Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's International Inc. "We have an availability issue, and we also have some quality issues because of the bad weather, and we thought it was important to tell our customers about that."
Mr. Lynch said the upon-request limitation is "just on sandwiches." Grape tomatoes, used in salads, are in greater supply, he said.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that about a third of fresh vegetables sold in the eastern part of the country during this time of year come from Florida. With the harvest there severely limited, produce from along the U.S.-Mexican border is filling much of the demand until an undamaged crop in southern Florida can be brought to market in April.
Until then, restaurants and retailers are making do with what they can find, cutting back where they can, and mostly eating the cost increases.
"Being in this business for the last 13 years, you deal with it," said Ed Beczynski, owner of Focaccia's Delicatessen and The Blarney in downtown Toledo. "The tomato selection isn't as good as it is normally, but in the summertime, the price will go down to about a third of what it is right now, so it balances out."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: