President Donald Trump announced his plans to build a controversial border wall this week, financed by imposing a 20 percent tax on goods from Mexico. Which would mean America, not Mexico, would be paying for the wall, with the tomatoes and limes we buy in grocery stores — and with every happy hour margarita we drink.
Even though Trump spokesman Sean Spicer later walked back his statement, saying an import tax was just one of the options being considered to fund the wall, it has some in the food industry worried. If it happens, Americans could end up paying more for their guacamole and tequila, which could affect restaurants here as well as farmers and poor communities in Mexico.
According to the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the United States imported 54 percent of its produce from Mexico between September 2015 and August 2016, a total of $10.4 billion. The top import was tomatoes, at 1.2 billion pounds — 19 percent of the market share. Watermelons, cucumbers, bell peppers, mangoes and grapes were among the other top imports — and would be among the items that could cost more at the grocery store, if such a tax were implemented.
But perhaps the most visible symbol of imported Mexican produce is the avocado. The fruit has grown in popularity in recent years, and is regularly consumed in half of all American households, according to the Hass Avocado Board. California avocado farms alone can’t meet the demand for all of the avocado Americans eat, making Mexico “the only region in the world that can sufficiently help meet U.S. avocado consumption, supplying 80% of the U.S. market,” said the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Mexico in a statement.
To which America, on social media, replied: They can take our avocado toast from our cold, dead fingers.
“If you really want to rile up the left, take away people’s avocados,” said Josh Phillips, founder of Espita Mezcaleria, an upscale Mexican restaurant in the District.
Because there have been few details about such a tax released — and because Spicer’s comments yesterday muddied the waters about whether a tax could happen at all — businesses aren’t yet sure how they could be affected, or how alarmed they should be. A spokesperson for Chipotle, which charges about $2 extra for guacamole in a burrito, said the company would not speculate on how it might affect their prices.
But some businesses are preparing for the worst. Espita buys produce imported from Mexico, including avocados and specialty Oaxacan corn.
“I already told my chef to start looking for backups in case something happens,” said Phillips. He’d prefer not to use American corn — it’s less authentic, and its flavor is not as interesting. “It would be kind of sad to me to go to a corn that’s just the same all the time. There’s just a little less love in it.”
While he has been able to absorb temporary price fluctuations due to weather or crop failure, a new tax on Mexican products would force him to raise prices on all his dishes accordingly.
“We don’t do cheap Mexican food. For us to increase any more — we already get a pushback on that price,” said Phillips, whose high-end restaurant makes everything from scratch, including turning that corn into masa and then tortillas. “There is an emotional price point that people are not willing to pay for our cuisine. I feel like we have to be really conservative in how we increase prices if this is going to happen.”
Espita charges $10 for guacamole, and it’s already one of the lowest-margin items on the menu. So if he were forced to take the price any higher, he might just take it off the menu. “If it’s a permanent thing, we can’t eat the cost.”
Still, Phillips acknowledged that expensive restaurants are better able to absorb the blow. What worries him are the lower-priced restaurants, many of which are run by immigrants who may support family back in Mexico.
“I’m a second-generation American. Most of my staff immigrated — legally, I might add — or are the children of immigrants,” he said. “This is a topic that’s very near and dear to my family here.”
The impact of such a tax on immigration and the Mexican economy is the biggest concern for Jorge Gaviria, founder of Masienda, a business that imports the heritage Mexican corn for such restaurants as Espita and downtown restaurant Oyamel, and works to support small farms and the people who depend on them.
“Our work impacts thousands of small farmers in Mexico,” said Gaviria. “We have an enormous responsibility to continue directing that impact in communities that need it most.”
But he’s still going to hedge his bets. He already had plans to work with Native American farmers in New Mexico to produce heritage American corn, which will give chefs a lower-priced option, and to start a retail line of tortillas. But with talk of the 20 percent tax making people in the culinary community nervous, he’s kicking it into high gear.
“The urgency is greater now, and I think the significance is greater,” said Gaviria. It gives him an opportunity to “tell that story in a way that honors our neighbors instead of vilifying our neighbors. It’s that much more important now for us to communicate that, instead of getting caught up in the hysteria of a 20 percent tax and a wall.”
He hopes that administration officials will understand that a tax could weaken Mexico’s economy, which could cause even more people to immigrate to America, seeking economic opportunity.
No matter what happens, people won’t stop eating Mexican food — which is why Gaviria thinks such a tax will prove unpopular with Americans. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted his disapproval, too.
“It’s a part of the fabric of this culture now,” said Gaviria. “Americans see a taco, a burrito, as part of the American culinary canon.”