Prices will rise 20 to 25 percent for citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, green beans and tomatoes at Washington-area retail food stores beginning Monday because of the Florida freeze, local produce suppliers said yesterday.
Shoppers will find scattered shortages of some of these products this weekend. But stores generally said that, for produce that is available, they will stand by the advertised prices that they set before the freeze. Many supermarkets, for example, are selling 10 Florida Temple organges for $1 through Sunday, according to the weekly food ads.
Starting Monday, however, stores will begin to pass on the higher costs that this week began shaking Washington's biggest wholesale produce market, located in Jessup, Md. Although there will be variations from store to store and product to product, some prices will rise much more sharply than others. Squash, for example, went up 70 percent this week at the wholesale level and is expected to rise significantly in the stores.
"Unbelievable," said Stanford Steppa, produce buyer for Magruder's, an area chain that buys from the Jessup market, a 33-acre complex that provides the Washington metropolitan area with about half of its fruits and vegtables. The other half is purchased by retailers direct from growers.
"We have talked to four or five suppliers and it is bad -- supplies are low and prices are sky high," Steppa said.
Wholesale price increases since Monday at the Jessup market, according to wholesaler Lou Weinstein, have included juice oranges, up 20 percent from an average $7 a crate to an average $8.40; lettuce, up 25 percent, from an average $8 a crate to $10, and the squash, up from an average of $9 a crate to an average $15.
Other vegetables that have included an average of 20 to 25 percent at wholesale levels this week are green beans, cucumbers, green peppers, cabbage, eggplant, celery and tomatoes, Weinstein said.
Wholesale price increases are not always translated exactly into retail price increases, but in general when one goes up so does the other.
For example, a 20-percent wholesale price increase for Florida Temple oranges would mean that shoppers could buy only eight oranges for $1 instead of the 10 oranges they have been getting. A year ago, stores here were selling the Temples 12 for $1.
Giant and Safeway, the two largest area chain supermarkets, buy some produce from the Jessup market wholesalers and some direct from growers in Florida, California and Texas. Representatives of the two chains said that their retail prices will go up due to freeze losses but they don't know how much.
"We will see some increases by the end of next week, but we don't want to comment on how much they will be," said Sue Portney, a spokesman for Giant. Safeway's spokesman said the date and the amount of its increase aren't certain yet. Both chains, however, expect to have adequate produce to sell this weekend since they already have a large supply in their warehouses.
Smaller stores, however, where owners buy supplies only one or two days in advance, are already feeling the impact of the increases.
Clarendon Natural Foods, a produce and herb store in Arlington, normally sells oversized Florida naval oranges for 49 cents apiece. "They are so big and so sweet that people come here just for them," said store manager Bill Tedder. But wholesale prices were higher than store owner Leonard Hollifield was willing to pay when he tried to restock this week.
"We didn't buy any," Tedder said.
Ralph Parlett, an economist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said this week's "turmoil in prices" reflects the considerable damage that South Florida crops suffered. However, he said, replantings could increase supplies and help bring prices down again this spring, perhaps as early as April or May.
In addition, Parlett said that the citrus prices that have increased so dramatically in the aftermath of the freeze might decline next month if supplies of oranges that survived the cold are brought to market before their usual schedule and supplies suddenly became plentiful again.
But yesterday in Jessup citrus shelves at the Weinstein warehouse were nearly bare. "We got 10 truckloads Monday -- a normal shipment," Weinstein said. "But we got only seven on Tuesday, four on Wednesday and two Thursday,"
The wholesale price increases represent a combination of forces: higher charges by growers and the bartering that is an innate part of the market operation. "A buyer [for a retail store] will shop here and ask how much are our oranges," said Weinstein. "We say $7 and he says he knows where he can get it for $6 and we bargain."
Grower prices also are subject to sudden and significant changes.
"When lettuce freeze in Florida, California goes up in price," said Steepa, the Magruder's producer buyer. And the California growers generally can command the higher price under such circumstances because of the decreased supply caused by the Florida losses, Steppa said.
With light snow falling outside the Jessup market yesterday and produce shipments limited, activity was slower than usual when Michael Mihm, manager of the Crab Shanty restaurant in Howard County, backed his enclosed pickup truck up to the loading dock and stepped out to shop for fruits and vegetables.
Even though he expected prices to be up because of the freeze, he was taken aback by the increases. "Zucchini was $21 a case, and I got it for only $9 last week," he said. "And the cherry tomatoes were $20 for a flat, instead of the $9 I paid two weeks ago."
Will Mihm raise his restaurant prices to compensate for increases?
"No, we'll just use a smaller portion."