Cue the jokes about restaurateurs being squeezed: Due to a bad harvest year in Mexico, limes have become a precious commodity, and wholesale suppliers are charging local restaurants as much as double the usual price per case.
"It is gold right now," Gordon Banks, co-owner of El Chucho, said of his bar's fresh-squeezed lime juice.
Disease, weather and criminal activity have contributed to the lime's sharp price increase. The New York Times reported this winter was an unusually rainy one in lime-growing regions of Mexico, knocking the blossoms from lime trees. Citrus greening blighted the crops and, once the scarcity became widespread and prices rose, drug cartels began hijacking export trucks.
If prices continue to rise, consumers will pucker at the consequences, which could include more expensive food and drinks. Your mojitos are safe for now, though. Many local beverage directors, unwilling to tinker with the recipes of their drinks, are either absorbing the cost, or shifting their menu to drinks that don’t rely on limes.
“We’re just going to take the hit,” said Rob Day, the beverage director for Richard Sandoval's restaurants, including El Centro, Masa 14 and the new Toro Toro. “I’m not changing my cocktails, nor the price. I don’t want to deter people from coming to our restaurants.”
Though lime prices fluctuate throughout the year and tend to be slightly higher in late winter and early spring, local restaurant workers say they haven’t seen a jump quite like this one before. Though the price hike is not expected to last into the summer, it's making members of the food and beverage industry nervous, especially with Cinco de Mayo looming. It's even inspired a Twitter hashtag: #limepocalypse.
Day, whose El Centro restaurants each go through five to seven cases of 200 limes per week, usually pays $28 to $38 per case; this week, his order is $90 per case.
"The worst case scenario is the price continues to rise and not drop in May," he said. "Then I’ll have to look at my costs." Last year on Cinco de Mayo, he sold 1,600 margaritas, and each margarita uses half a lime.
Adam Bernbach, the beverage director for 2 Birds 1 Stone, Doi Moi, Estadio and Proof, is paying $110 per case of limes, up from $40, he said. He’s halved his usual order of 12 175-count cases of limes.
“We didn’t really get hit with any major price increases until a few weeks ago,” Bernbach said. “I was actually able to anticipate it a bit.” At 2 Birds 1 Stone this week, he's showcasing drinks like "Bananas is my Business," with oat whiskey, wheat beer, banana soda and amaro. The lime-heavy daiquiri has come off the menu at Doi Moi, replaced by a drink that gets its tang from green apple soda and only tiniest squirt of lime.
"I am certainly not going to take a classic cocktail and sub in lemon for lime," Bernbach said. "Going forward and making drinks, I am going to start developing recipes more heavily for lemon." Unsweetened cranberry juice is another way to add tartness to a drink, he said.
But not every beverage director is as lucky as Bernbach, who has the flexibility to change his menus often. Banks said it's a tough time to be running a small Mexican restaurant. His usual order of 20 200-count cases of limes could be as low as $18 per case in better times, but has gradually skyrocketed to $96 per case. Once it reached $80, Banks raised the price of his margaritas by 50 cents.
"On top of being wildly expensive, we’ve only been getting a half to three-quarters of the yield," Banks said. "They’re actually bearing less juice out of each fruit. It’s more expensive than just the ticket price, because the limes aren’t the quality we’re used to."
His other co-owned bars, which include Sidebar and Bar Charley, aren't as dependent upon lime juice, but it's still a hardship. He usually throws away leftover juices at the end of the night, but he's told the bartenders at Sidebar to save any leftover lime juice for the next day.
Some bars, like Meridian Pint, have nearly eliminated their lime orders entirely. Beverage director Sam Fitz said his bartenders have been instructed to provide a lime garnish for mixed drinks only when requested. "It’s like putting a pickle on a plate with a burger," Fitz said. "More often than not, people say they don’t want it."
Meridian Pint's hibiscus margarita has come off the menu, replaced by a Paloma, which uses tequila and grapefruit soda; and the rickey on draft has been replaced with a Tom Collins, which uses lemons instead of limes. When his usual weekly order of a case of limes went from $30 to $100, Fitz considered a 25-cent surcharge for the fruit, but decided to eliminate his bar's need for limes instead.
"We’re very lucky to be a beer bar first and foremost," Fitz said. "It’s been easier on the staff, they don’t have to squeeze as much juice."
In the days of #limepocalypse, Fitz has managed to cut his need down to five limes a day. He buys them from the local Giant, where they are 30 cents apiece.