April 11, 2014

Beaufort County bar, restaurant owners sour over soaring lime prices

Beaufort County bars and restaurants are being squeezed by a national lime shortage, caused in part by drug cartels at war in Mexico.

Some Lowcountry restaurants are serving margaritas with lemons instead, while others are shouldering prices that have tripled in recent months.

"When you're in the business, prices fluctuate." said Jim Prignano, who owns Amigos Cafe in Bluffton. "But this is pretty bad."

He said a large distributor was charging nearly $1 a lime -- $140 for 150 -- which is almost triple the usual price. He's switched to buying limes in smaller quantities at Sam's Club to use in his tacos, chicken salads and drinks, he said.

In Beaufort, owner John Marshall said the surge has hurt profits at The Old Bull Tavern, though he still uses fresh lime juice to make gin and tonics, and other cocktails.

"It hasn't affected drink prices as of yet," Marshall said. "It just costs us a little bit more to make the drink."

Marshall buys his fruit from NLaws Produce in Savannah, where co-owner Jay Epstein said limes normally cost about $25 for a case of about 150. Now, he's paying $150 plus freight charges for a case.

"Tomatoes once in a while will go crazy, but never like this," he said.

Epstein ships in his limes from California through a distributor who buys them in Mexico, which grows 95 percent of the U.S. lime supply.

But growers in the Mexican state of Michoacán are supplying fewer limes because of unrest caused by drug cartels and flooding from heavy rains. That, combined with drought in California and a growing demand for limes for margaritas, tacos, guacamole and other dishes, has driven up prices to a three-year high.

The average advertised price of a lime in U.S. supermarkets was 56 cents last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That was up from 37 cents the week ending March 28 and up 31 cents from one year ago.

The shortage is affecting air travelers, too. Last week, Alaska Airlines stopped serving limes with in-flight drinks, and United Airlines said customers would have to make do with lemons in their Diet Cokes.

Epstein said he’s starting to see quantities increase, and expects to see the shortage end by Easter — in time for Cinco de Mayo.

Marshall, the bar owner, said it’s not unusually to take a hit on foods such as lime or figs at the beginning of a season.

“Things usually have a way of evening out.”

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