High lime prices giving U.S. bartenders a hangover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Every time a bartender at trendy Los
Angeles fusion eatery Luna Park squeezes a shot of lime into a drink
these days, owner Peter Kohtz says he winces a little.
Luna Park,
known for its large selection of craft cocktails, is one of thousands of
restaurants from coast to coast that have fallen victim to the Great
Green Citrus Crisis of 2014 — a severe shortage of limes that has meant
that the fruit has skyrocketed in price in recent weeks.
A case of
200 or so fetches between $80 and $130 now, up from about $15 last year
— the result of a perfect storm of circumstances from citrus disease
that struck Florida in 2001 and wiped out most lime groves to the
increasing reach of drug cartels to disrupt supplies in Mexico, the
biggest U.S. supplier.
The cost might not seem like that big of a
deal until one realizes that it’s lime juice that’s squeezed into every
margarita, mojito or mai tai. It’s also lime that’s chopped up and mixed
with fresh fish to create ceviche. It’s lime, mixed with avocado, that
makes up guacamole — a mainstay at every Mexican restaurant.
just one of those things that you take for granted. You never really
think about it because it’s always there," said Kohtz, noting his
bartenders squeeze an entire lime’s worth of juice into most specialty
So far, the price spike doesn’t seem to have been passed
on widely to consumers, according to industry officials, but people are
beginning to notice it in other ways.
Alaska Airlines stopped
putting limes in in-flight beverages a couple of weeks ago. At a recent
luncheon meeting of the California Restaurant Association’s board of
directors, association spokeswoman Angie Pappas said limes were
noticeably absent from the buffet bar, which featured Mexican food.
of the luncheon attendees, a Southern California restaurateur, told her
he is offering a free appetizer to any customer who brings in a bag of
limes from their backyard tree. In Phoenix, the Arizona Republic reports
that a bar and restaurant group is offering a free cocktail, glass of
wine or beer to anyone who brings in 5 pounds of limes.
Which raises the question, if limes grow on backyard trees in Los Angeles and Phoenix, why are they so
they don’t really grow well enough in most of the U.S. to be produced
commercially, says Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at
the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department.
2001, Crane said, Florida produced half of all the limes consumed in
the United States. But then a devastating citrus canker outbreak led
officials to order almost all of Florida’s lime groves destroyed and the
industry never recovered.
Mexico began producing more than 90 percent of the limes now consumed in the United States.
most of California, the weather isn’t warm or humid enough to produce
commercial quality limes, and the state has only a few hundred acres in
production near the Mexican border.
Mexico’s crop, meanwhile, was
hit by a myriad of problems this year, including flooding in some areas
and interference from the Knight Templar drug cartel, which jacked up
prices by disrupting deliveries and shaking down farmers.
American mobsters, the drug cartel that controls much of the Mexican
state of Michoacan where both limes and marijuana grow in abundance, has
been muscling in on legitimate businesses.
A Mexican official
told The Associated Press last month the cartel extorts as much as $1.4
million a week from legitimate businesses, mainly lime and avocado
growers. In some instances, he said, the cartel is now running some of
the state’s wholesale lime distribution centers where prices are set.
winter’s storms, which triggered major floods across western Mexico,
also destroyed crops, and a plant disease that struck the Mexican state
of Colima damaged still more.
The result, the price of limes has
shot up dramatically in both Mexico and the U.S. Restaurants in Seattle
and New York have reported paying as much as $130 a case for them.
the industry waits for the summer crop to lower prices, some
restaurants and bars nationwide are pulling lime drinks off their happy
hour menus. Others are substituting ingredients like lemons or oranges,
said Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association.
not an option at El Coyote, says Wayne Christoffersen, manager of the
popular Mexican eatery that’s been a fixture with Hollywood’s hipster
and film industry crowd since opening in 1931.
"People want to see
a lime in their margarita, and rightfully so," says Christoffersen, who
is paying $80 a case for them. "A margarita’s not a margarita without
the lime."
Independent filmmaker Laura Bahr, who has downed her
share of margaritas at El Coyote and other watering holes, says if
anyone dared put anything but a lime in her drink she’d likely never go
"The lime mixed with the tequila is just a winsome combination," she says. "Like peanut
butter and jelly."
So until the price spike ends, Kohtz of Luna Park says he’s come up with the only alternative he can
think of.
"I tell the bartenders, ‘Squeeze those limes extra hard. Squeeze out every drop you can.’"
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