Better savor the flavor of the 'mater

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

Tomatoes are a hot topic in the restaurant industry these days, thanks to a January freeze in Florida that killed about 70 percent of the state’s crop.
During the winter, Florida is the only U.S. state that produces large amounts of tomatoes.
But now that the crop has been slashed, restaurants face rapidly climbing prices and, in some cases, shortages of tomatoes.
Signs in a Tupelo Wendy’s and Subway notify customers that tomatoes, if they are available, will be served by request only.
According to media reports, Burger King has been going tomato-less in some locations, too.
Many restaurants in Northeast Mississippi are paying double the normal rate for the juicy red produce, but they aren’t skimping on their tomato use.
“To me, a tomato and a sandwich go together,” said John Mark Elliott, who owns Lenny’s Sub Shop in Tupelo with his wife, Emily.
The Elliotts use about 100 pounds of tomatoes every week. The sandwiches are made to order, but typically, two tomato slices go on a regular sandwich and four slices go on a large. A regular tomato can be cut into about 10 slices.
According to The Associated Press, the average wholesale price for a 25-pound box is $30, up from $6.50 last year.
U.S. retail prices for fresh tomatoes averaged $1.64 a pound in the week through March 4, up 22 percent from a year earlier, according to Business Week.
Elliott has been open six years and has noticed an increase in tomato prices every year.
Said Brantley Bryant, general manager of McAlister’s Deli in Tupelo, “If it’s not freezing, it’s rain or drought. … It happens because they are crops and you can’t grow them under a dome.”
Added Elliott at Lenny’s, “If I were to change prices every time they go up, I’d change every day. It’s one of those things we ride out.”
Restaurant managers and owners have a similar mentality at Vainisi’s in New Albany, Las Margaritas in Tupelo and various McDonald’s and McAlister’s Deli locations in Northeast Mississippi.
They said the restaurants have tomatoes to serve to customers and there are no price changes on the menu.
“Especially in a Mexican restaurant, it’s bad if you don’t have salsa or pico de gallo or tomatoes,” said Javier Rico, the manager at Las Margaritas on South Industrial Road in Tupelo. “We’ve got to have tomatoes.”
The restaurant makes about 20 gallons of tomato-based salsa every morning just for chip-dipping, Rico said. More is made for the restaurant’s menu items.
Rico doesn’t foresee a time when the restaurant would cut back on its salsa usage. However, if prices keep going up, he said canned tomatoes may be an option in some recipes.
But the price of canned tomatoes has gone up too, said Frank Vainisi, owner of the downtown New Albany eatery.
However, “fresh is really where we’re getting killed right now,” Vainisi said.
He said prices have been up the past few weeks, but the Italian restaurant hasn’t changed how it uses tomatoes in its recipes.
“We have been more careful with volume and storage and making sure we don’t have a lot of waste,” Vainisi said.
He’s also paying attention to prices from different vendors. Rico is doing the same thing. At Las Margaritas, the last batch of tomatoes came from Mexico, a popular switch for restaurants as they look for lower prices. He’s also had tomatoes from Alabama.
Mississippi has a few commercial tomato growers, according to state agriculture department bureau director Andy Prosser, but the acreage is nowhere near Florida’s numbers.
The vast majority of tomato farmers in Mississippi, he said, grow for home consumption or for sale at farmers’ markets.
“We’ve seen in the past few years an increase in fruit and vegetable production, with the push for local products,” he said, adding that he thinks the trend will continue.
The bad news for tomato lovers should turn around soon, though.
Business Week earlier this month reported that the Florida crop is expected to rebound in April. In fact, tomato growers are worried about a surplus of tomatoes, which could cause them to lose $7 million per week.
While a surplus would be bad for growers, it’s welcome news to restaurant owners who are worried about the price of tomatoes.
“From what I’m hearing,” Elliott said, “next month it’ll go back down.”

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.