Hurricanes turn lowly tomato into a hot commodity

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:52

    SUSSEX COUNTY-If you thought those four hurricanes that ravaged Florida didn't do any real damage up here, you probably haven't tried to buy a tomato lately. 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. "Tomatoes, peppers, all kinds of things," commented Joe Luchetti, a local 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 sandwhcih, 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 havested and when the Florida crop was supposed to come in. 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." "We went from paying eight dollars 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."