Salad-lover Grace Ridgely picked up a bunch of romaine lettuce for her family at the grocery store last week and got hit with the backlash of what bad weather in California means for consumers.
"It was $3.49, and I nearly fell over," she said.The price of romaine lettuce varies according to the season, but two months ago it retailed at about 99 cents per bunch.
Ridgely also has seen extraordinary increases in wholesale prices for romaine lettuce at the restaurant she manages, Tucci's Cucina Ita-li-ana, 700 E. 515 South.
Tucci's is popular for its Caesar salad, which costs $1.50 with an entree or $2.50 alone.
Ridgely insists that Tucci's won't pass the higher prices along to customers. "We're still serving romaine, but we're not raising the price. We want to keep our quality level up."
But other restaurants are either jacking up the price of salads made with romaine lettuce or, like the 4,500 Wendy's restaurants in the country, they are eliminating Caesar salads from the menu. Wendy's even has posted signs in its windows about the romaine rut.
Blame it on El Nino, some experts say, which produced heavy rains last month that lashed central California and flooded many lettuce fields.
Whether the rains were due to El Nino or some other cause, they delayed lettuce planting, killed seedlings and created stagnant water that, when the weather warmed, developed a fungus that damaged existing lettuce.
California produces about 80 percent of the nation's lettuce crop.
Michael Read, director of public relations and governmental affairs for Albertsons, isn't sure if El Nino is really the culprit, but he said the rains did hurt the romaine supply.
"Instead of getting several thousand cases per acre, they were getting several hundred cases per acre," he said. "Pricing won't be the same everywhere for everybody, but as an illustration we saw the (wholesale) price jump from $9 per case to $42 per case."
However, Read said this is a short-term situation that will change soon.
Wholesale prices now are $25 per case and are continuing to drop, which will mean shoppers will soon see lower costs in the stores.
"My produce people are telling me that in the next two weeks it should be down to a pretty normal pricing and supply," he said.
Read also notes that weather conditions affect produce in some way all the time: One year it might be a freeze in Florida that affects citrus fruits; another year it's something else.
Rob Boley, assistant vice president of public relations for Fred Meyer, said other lettuces such as red leaf, green and iceberg also were affected and their prices, too, are higher. But romaine was the hardest hit.
He agrees with Read that the worst has passed, and Boley said that the recent high prices actually dampened demand, which in turn bolstered the supply of romaine lettuce in the short term. In the meantime, new romaine fields are growing.
Grocery shoppers and restaurant patrons should see lower prices soon.
"There is a lot of product out there, and the prices are dropping," Boley said.
Romaine is a dark green lettuce that grows long and upright with leaves that curl inward. It is considered by many salad lovers to be more flavorful than other types of lettuce and is rich in vitamins.
It is the base for the popular Caesar salad, which was invented in 1924 by Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini. Romaine leaves are tossed with a pungent dressing that includes oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, anchovies, Worchestershire sauce, grated Parmesan cheese and croutons.