Additional reporting by Erin Mosbaugh
In today’s world of knee-jerk media, it feels like every other day brings word of a new foodpocolypse threating our eating and drinking habits. Between alleged bacon shortages and Sriracha shutdowns, there’s often a lot of fear-mongering without much actual effect.
Not all food-supply freakouts are media creations, though. The current lime shortage in the U.S. is very real, and it’s affecting plenty of businesses, including your favorite cocktail bar. Whether it’s a neo-speakeasy peddling classic drinks like gimlets and daiquiris, or a Latin-leaning barroom pumping out margaritas, cocktail joints rely on freshly squeezed lime juice for more than just garnishes on a gin and tonic.
For some background on the origins of the crisis, check out David Karp’s op-ed piece from this weekend’s New York Times; in short, a combination of extreme weather, a crop-killing bacterial disease, and shady Mexican cartel activity has driven lime prices through the roof (95% of the U.S. lime supply comes from Mexico). To get a better sense of how all of this affects the cocktail community, we spoke to some bartenders and owners to get a sense of how bad things really are, and what they’re doing to cope.
What type of price increases are bars experiencing?
In some cases, as much as double normal rates, and at minimum closer to 20-25%. Cocktail Kingdom’s Don Lee says, “In the last 2 weeks, a case went from $75 to $95.” Alex Stupak, whose two Mexican restaurants—Empellón Taqueria and Empellón Cocina—got through a lot of citrus on both the food and beverage side, has experienced a similar hike: “Limes are currently 90 bucks a case,” he told us on Friday. “That’s way, way high and it affected our food and beverage cost in a negative way.”
It’s almost like watching the stock market. Right now the [lime cost] is so high, it’s just something a lot of cocktail bars can’t really swallow.
Other bartenders reported prices as high as $110, up from $60. Of course, there will always be discrepancies based on factors like the purveyor and the size of the order. But the wild price swings speak to the volatility of the current lime economy. “It’s almost like watching the stock market,” says Maison Premiere’s Maxwell Britten. “You have four or five competitors for where you purchase your produce from, and they all post different prices based on market availability. Right now the [price] is so high, it’s just something a lot of cocktail bars can’t really swallow.”
You can see the effect for yourself by checking sticker prices at the supermarket or corner fruit stand. On Fresh Direct, limes are almost a buck a piece right now. And, of course, this is a nationwide problem and not one limited to NYC. Eater rounded up some experiential data from restaurant and bar owners around the world, and price-hike pro Ryan Sutton checked the USDA index to drag up some more concrete numbers:
Limes prices averaged $0.53 last week, compared with $0.44 earlier in March, and $0.21 this time last year, per @USDA data, a 152% HIKE.
— ryan sutton (@qualityrye) March 28, 2014
Is lime cost really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, though?
In short, yes. “If you’re running a serious cocktail program, citrus costs are something you have to manage on a weekly basis,” says Britten. Every bar is different depending on volume and the makeup of the drinks list, but Lee adds that a balanced cocktail program can easily call for 10 cases of limes per week. With prices creeping to around $100 per case, that’s a $1,000 cost just for one type of citrus on the menu.
For some businesses, the situation is even more extreme. In a story on Alcademics, Lou Bustamante notes that Mexican restaurants are bearing the largest burden: “Tacolicious, with four locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, estimates that they use about 150 cases of limes a week, hitting them with a $72,000 a month lime bill.”
So, how will these costs affect drinkers?
Most bartenders we spoke to emphasized that they loathe changing their menus or increasing prices, noting that they’d rather take the hit than betray the trust of customers—particularly when they are already paying upwards of $13-$15 per cocktail.
“You can chalk it up next to health department visits, property appreciation expenses, super-storm survival, Yankee playoff runs, and more than a dozen other unexpected expenses that one takes in stride (and on the chin) as a bar/restaurant operator,” says PDT’s Jim Meehan.
I can’t see limes going the way of Pappy Van Winkle. I don’t see people paying $40 for a margarita!
Kenneth McCoy (Ward III, Rum House) expresses a similar outlook: “We are still serving our signature WARDlll cocktail with fresh lime juice at our regular price, as well as margaritas , daiquiris, gimlets, mojitos, you name it—to price gouge the public would be ludicrous. Maybe I’ll change my tune if this thing keeps up in the next few months, but I can’t see limes going the way of Pappy Van Winkle. I don’t see people paying $40 for a margarita!”
But beyond the hard-liners, there are those willing to make careful concessions. Last week, New York Times drink writer Robert O. Simonson noted that Long Island Bar had dropped its gimlet for the time being:
Latest casualty of ongoing lime shortage: Long Island Bar takes trademark Gimlet off the menu. #Sacrifices
— Robert O. Simonson (@RobertOSimonson) March 26, 2014
Others are looking for more subtle ways to minimize lime use without changing drink formulations. Aaron Polsky says that Gin Palace has considered ways to be more judicious if the shortage continues. “[Lime wedges] are used with almost the same frequency as a straw, but people just throw them away on a bar,” he says. “I don’t think every vodka soda needs them.” Mario Batali famously instituted a ‘straws upon request’ policy to save his restaurant group tens of thousands of dollars—the ubiquitous lime wedge could be a similar victim of cost-cutting.
What if the situation gets more dire?
At the moment, it’s more likely that you’ll notice the perfunctory lime wedge is disappearing from your Diet Coke before restaurants take margaritas off the menu. But the lack of certainty about how long this shortage might last is forcing many operators to consider long-term solutions. Here are some of the most interesting ideas we heard from bartenders:
- Buying in bulk. Most bars don’t have the money to buy a huge amount of citrus upfront, nor the volume to use it quickly enough. However, cocktail consultant Jason Littrell says that larger hotel and restaurant groups have more wiggle room. “There’s something happening with high-pressure pasteurization right now,” he says. With the right equipment, you can “bulk juice limes, strain and bottle them, then evacuate the oxygen—as long as they’re refrigerated, they’re good for up to two months.” With the newly unveiled Cocktail Kingdom Logistics, Lee and his business partners are helping smaller bars leverage similar economies of scale by prepping and delivering fresh juices and other bar essentials daily. “We’re buying at high volume, so we can sell a half-gallon [of lime juice] for $27.50,” he says. As a point of comparison, the price for a half gallon is currently $34 at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, a popular source of produce for local restaurants and bars.
- Alternative acids. “I think you’re going to start seeing different secondary and tertiary ingredients coming into play, like grapefruits, lemons, and balsamic vinegars,” says Littrell. He also notes the growing popularity of fruit purées from producers like Boiron, Funkin, and Perfect Puree. Few serious cocktail bars would ever consider swapping these for fresh lime juice, but they might build new recipes around them as creative alternatives to the usual mojitos and daiquiris. Lee says that bartenders at more advanced establishments could “make passable lime juice by adding malic acid to lemon juice, but there’s probably only about three or four people in New York City who would be willing to put in the effort to get that ratio correct.” More likely, people will find less intrusive ways to minimize lime use. Lee says he heard from a Plymouth Gin ambassador encouraging people to “go back to garnishing gin and tonics with lemons, because historically that’s what it was anyways.”
- Gentle persuasion of customers. Lee says, “The easy thing that a bar owner might do is say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to mess with the drinks that are on the menu,’ but tell the bartenders, ‘Hey, stop suggesting margaritas and daiquiris for a while.'”
So keep your eyes and ears open when you hit the bar next week. If you notice that a bartender isn’t recommending any of the cocktails with lime juice, he might be trying to steer you away from a high-cost item. And if you want that lime wedge for your Corona, you might have to start asking for it.
Hopefully, the shortage will clear up soon so that spring—and all of its warmer-weather, lime-heavy drinks—can finally arrive.