The 19-day-old nationwide truckers' strike has begun boosting the price of wholesale produce coming to the Washington area. The costs of some fruits and vegetables already have skyrocketed, and consumers soon will begin to feel the pinch according to area businessmen.
"It's just out of sight," said Dave Woods, owner of Pioneer Produce Co., which distributes to several large chain restaurants. "Generally we're getting merchandise, but items that are coming in from distant points are up 200-to-300 percent."
The full impact of these costs has not begun to show up on supermarket shelves. Woods said, however, that the wholesale price of lemons has gone up from 4 cents to 12 cents each since the strike began, celery from 33 to 83 cents a bunch, jumbo onions from 14 to 24 cents a pound and lettuce from 31 to nearly 46 cents a head.
The strike, which has been marred by scattered incidents of violence, has severely reduced the humber of longhaul truckers on the road. "The few brave ones that are driving are taking their lives in their hands and asking a higher price for it," Woods said.
Ernie Moore, spokesman for the area's 125 Safeway supermarkets, said yesterday that freight charges on most shipments have gone up - as much as 33 percent on produce coming from the Far West and 25 percent on items coming from the South and Southwest.
How high such increases will force prices in area groceries, convenience stores and restaurants is not clear, but no one doubts that retail costs will go up, probably within the next two or three weeks.
"Obviously with the truckers' strike there will be price increases," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Foods, who would not release specific figures. "These prices are generally passed on to the consumer."
Safeway's Moore also was reluctant to estimate how high the prices will go at the cash register. "We're going to absorb [the higher prices] as much as we can. I'm not going to say anything more," Moore said.
Smaller wholesalers, however, say they cannot absorb the cost increases, and consequently must pass the entire increase on to their restaurant, corner grocery and institutional customers.
"There's no way that we can absorb it," said D.C. produce wholesaler John Kalivretenos. "We pass it all over to the customers. . . The restaurants have resigned themselves to it. They will cut down on the ounces of servings, change their menus or raise their prices."
Truckers are charging Kalivretenos $3 more for each case of naval oranges from California, and 300 cases come in a shipment. "You're going to have to pay a bigger price if you want it. It's the old thing of supply and demand."
Safeway's Moore said retail prices could return to normal levels once the strike is ended because produce prices at supermarkets often are based on a set profit margin above wholesale cost. "If any cost goes down the price goes down," Moore said. "It all depends on what we have to pay for it."
To ease the crunch of the truckers' strike, some wholesalers have turned to the railroads for an increasing number of their shipments. But trains take several days longer to deliver, the wholesalers said, and the risks of spoilage increase.
One employe at the Giant store in the Van Ness Mall said yesterday that the store recently turned away a box-car of cherries that had rotted.
Locally grown produce still is relatively cheap, with the price of potatoes, peppers, cucumbers and radishes from the Eastern Shore and Delaware largely remaining stable.