Red or green, they cost a lot of gold

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    WEST MILFORD-If you thought those four hurricanes that ravaged Florida didn't do any real damage up here, you probably haven't tried recently to buy a tomato or bell pepper. Typically, supermarket prices for green bell peppers and tomatoes are 99 cents a pound, with red bell peppers (the more mature version of the green) costing somewhat more. Currently, all three products, while widely available in supermarkets, are commanding far higher prices. Last week supermarkets were selling tomatoes and bell peppers at $2.99 per pound — triple the normal price. While a customer can skip making a homemade spaghetti sauce loaded with fresh peppers and tomatoes, restaurants don't have it so lucky. The hurricanes - Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - didn't just wipe out houses. They ripped through produce crops, the deluge of rain followed a drought of vegetables - especially tomatoes - that is hitting restaurants particularly hard. How are local eateries faring? "It's ridiculous what they're charging you," declares Joe Reda, owner of Paramour Pizza at 2775 Route 23 South in Newfoundland. "Earlier this week I ordered half a case of peppers and it was $14. The last time I ordered it was $17 for a full case," he stressed. "I'm ordering tomatoes tomorrow," he said Tuesday, and I was told the price of tomatoes is up 50 to 100 percent." For retailers such as Reda, they're caught in the middle. "I'm charging $1.75 for a topping. What am I supposed asked rhetorically, "raise the price to $2.75? "I'll swallow it. Generally you swallow the increase." He cited another instance some six months ago in which pizza cheese rose in price from $1.56 per pound to $2.34 and higher. Although he says some local competitiors temporarily raised their prices, Reda didn't. "I didn't raise the price even though the others did, because I'm the new kid on the block." He's owned the business just a year, he said. "Tomatoes, peppers, all kinds of things," are soaring in price according to Joe Luchetti, a supplier who delivers produce from the Hunts Point Market in New York to Sussex County restaurants. "There's no supply and a lot of demand. Whoever wants to pay the most money gets stuff. The tomatoes got wiped out. And you can't use canned product for salads or sandwiches." A box of tomatoes weighing 25 pounds normally sells for $15-$18, Luchetti said. Last week, the same box was going for $50 or more. This week, he expected the price to hit $80. The shortage affects any business that serves a salad or throws a slice of tomato on a sandwich, but Italian restaurants — where doing without tomatoes is like playing a doubleheader without a baseball — are the hardest hit. The real pinch began in the past month, after the California crop was harvested and when the Florida crop was supposed to come in, but failed to materialize due to storm destruction. The Mexican crop, which runs through the winter, won't begin arriving for another three or four weeks. In the meantime, tomatoes are becoming red gold. "It's definitely going to be a snowball effect," said Sue VanVleet, the manager for Mama-Roni's Italian restaurant on Route 206 in Branchville. "There is no place that doesn't use tomatoes. The supply and demand has affected all tomatoes. There are no cheap tomatoes at all today." "It's not so much the tomatoes for the sauce, but it's the produce," added Bill Elig, the owner of Villa Capri in Sparta. "There may be weeks where we can't even get tomatoes." Luchetti, who has been in his business for 20 years, remembers hurricane damage creating a shortage in the 1980s, but, he said, it wasn't nearly as severe as what he's experiencing now. "We went from paying $8 a case to $50 a case now," explained Jason Meisner, who owns Bellissimo's on Route 23 in Franklin. "It's really hurting business and everything. We go through a case a day sometimes." Luchetti suggested that until things improve, some owners may opt to buy less, since wholesalers still must make a living regardless of conditions. "The prices have quadrupled in a month," Luchetti said. "They think it's price gouging, but it's not. The guys that supply me in New York, if he's selling 12 loads a day and now he's selling five loads, he's still got everybody to pay. He's got to make the same money on five loads as on 12. I have one guy who can't make salsa in a Mexican restaurant." Ultimately, customers could also be affected. Elig said that he hasn't raised prices yet, but he said he may either have to reduce his tomato orders or raise his prices. Others reluctantly agree. "Are we using them sparingly? Not yet," VanVleet said. "But we're getting to the point where we may have to. It's not us. It's the industry in general." "The prices are definitely going up, but I don't feel it's a shortage," concluded Maryann Prestipino, a co-owner of both Bella Vita's in Wantage and the Sussex Queen Diner. "The price of everything is very high. You don't hear of anything going down, do you? It's the market."