Fort Worth

March 28, 2014

Surging lime prices cause Tex-Mex sticker shock

Thanks to cold and rainy weather in Mexico, limes have gone up in price from as low as $10 a case to $100, leaving local businesses facing extra costs or a switch to lemons.

Customers at the El Rancho Supermarket at Beach and East Belknap streets in Fort Worth are used to loading up on limes. Now they’re returning them to the produce aisle by the bag.

With the cost of the green citrus fruit reaching an all-time high, manager Kareem Nafal has had to start selling them three for $1.19 instead of his former deal — 15 for $1. Confused customers are grabbing three bags of key limes instead, which sell for $5 apiece, only to learn at the checkout counter that the price is for three individual limes.

“Before we went through 20 cases of limes a day. But now, we go through about 10 a week,” Nafal said.

Limes, that everyday staple of margaritas and Mexican food, are suddenly pricey thanks to bad weather in the Mexican fields where they’re grown. And there’s plenty of Tex-Mex sticker shock north of the border.

“I’m just not using them. It’s ridiculous,” said Carlos Rodriguez, owner of Salsa Fuego in west Fort Worth.

Rodriquez said he typically spends $10-$15 a case for 200 limes, but had to recently stop using them at his restaurant and offer his patrons lemons instead after the price jumped to $86 a case.

The Texas Department of Agriculture blamed the price spike on heavy rains in Mexico “that destroyed a large amount of the lime crop, so with limited supplies we are seeing lime prices skyrocket.” The state estimated that about 98 percent of the limes consumed in Texas come from Mexico.

Paul Gonzalez, Jr., a produce buyer for River City Produce, one of the largest produce and food service wholesalers in San Antonio, said unseasonably cold weather also contributed to the problem.

“Between the wind and cold weather, the bloom sets in many farms were knocked off the trees, causing a large gap in production,” Gonzalez said.

Aaron Ethridge, marketing director for Bar Mart, which supplies local bars and restaurants in Fort Worth, said his company was selling limes to its customers for $37 a case last month, but has had to increase the price to $125. Prices jumped $35 just from last week when they sold 200-count cases for $90.

“I’ve never seen it this high,” Ethridge said. “But everyone’s hands are tied. It’s a necessary evil. You’ve got to have them.”

For now, restaurants are adjusting to the extra costs and trying to hold off on raising prices.

Veke Fernandez, general manager of the Flying Fish in the Arlington Heights area of Fort Worth, said the restaurant is paying $100 a case for limes. But its recipes require the flavor that cannot be replaced with lemon.

“It’s just the cost of doing business. We need to have them,” Fernandez said. “Tomatoes go up sometimes and there are burger places that won’t put them on their burgers. Well, we have a lot of recipes that require lime juice and it doesn’t taste the same if you use lemon.”

“Limes are ridiculously out of whack as far as price in concerned,” he added.

In San Antonio, Keith Ludwick, a manager at Acenar, said most of the restaurant’s vendors don’t even have limes, and if they do, the prices are unbelievably high. He said the cartels in Mexico have increasingly made exports from the country more difficult, which he believes also plays a role.

Sonic, the chain of drive-in restaurants, said the franchise is “feeling the pinch.” The company boasts more than a million fountain and slush drink combinations, including at least six different types of limeades.

Patrick Lenow, a Sonic spokesman, said the company believes the price increases are only temporary, and will not affect drink prices.

“To the best of our knowledge, none of our franchise owners have elected to take a price change,” Lenow said. “But we are looking at lime sizing. It’s a real challenge.”

Luis Penaloza’s eyes bulged as he read the “3 for $1.19” sign at El Rancho on Thursday afternoon. Penaloza said he didn’t realize the fruit was so costly now.

“I’m only buying them to make a ceviche tomorrow, but believe me, I would have bought something else … I didn’t plan on this,” he said.

Nafal said his employees are using dented and over-ripe limes to make drinks at the Fruteria inside El Rancho to save patrons money on drinks.

“All of our products come from Mexico,” Nafal said. “Any drought affects us.”

But Ed Noyes, owner of Malones Pub in downtown Fort Worth, said the bar goes through a good amount of limes, but it’s not enough to pass the cost to customers.

“I’m paying more, but it just isn’t a big enough issue to raise the price,” he said.

This report includes material from the San Antonio Express-News.

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