As many fast-food restaurants remove tomatoes from their menus, foodservice operators and suppliers are working to ensure adequate supplies to meet their customers’ needs.

Arby’s and Wendy’s were still offering tomatoes in mid-March but had erected signs saying they would provide tomatoes on their hamburgers and sandwiches only by customer request.

Tomato shortage makes foodservice operators adjust purchases

Doug Ohlemeier

Mature green tomatoes run on a Florida packing line. As many fast-food restaurants remove tomatoes from their menus, foodservice operators and suppliers are working to ensure adequate supplies.

“It’s like diamonds are implanted into the tomatoes,” said Aaron Johnson, national programs coordinator for National Produce Consultants Inc., Dallas, which works with growers and distributors in managing contract purchases. ‘Hopefully, prices will start coming down after a while (and supplies will increase) so we can get back to some normalcy.”

Attempting to keep costs down, Johnson said some restaurant operators have switched to featuring roma tomatoes instead of rounds on their salad bars and have been scaling back on fresh tomato orders. Johnson said operators are dealing with the situation well and said he and others are studying product availability and advising their customers where they can source the best yields.

Though saying supplies have been shorter, Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., which has repacking operations throughout the U.S., called supply adequate.

He said sizings have been substandard producing shortages of the extra large mature greens. He said customers may have to substitute the smaller counts but said quality has been improving every week and said supplies should improve and return to close to normal April 10-15.

“No one has not had the ability to source supply and, overall, most customers’ usage has been fairly stable,” DiMare said March 17. “It’s just a matter of what customers are willing to pay for the product.”

DiMare said Homestead production in mid-March was below normal but said supplies should remain steady until the deal ends in early May. He said the December freezes delayed plantings and are producing lower yields for southwest Florida production in Immokalee, Fla., which he said should start April 10, about 10 days later than usual. Central Florida production in Palmetto-Ruskin should also start late, in late April, behind its normal mid-April start for mature greens, DiMare said.

Mike Spinazzola, president of DRS Inc., San Diego, which procures produce for Subway, said Subway continues to provide tomatoes as sandwich ingredients but said Subway was struggling to find high-quality tomatoes.

He said DRS has instructed its repackers to do more in-depth sorting in the chain’s work to provide tomatoes at prices acceptable to franchisees.

“What we have to do is balance our needs with what’s out there in the growing regions,” Spinazzola said. “If there’s not a substantial amount of supply, our corporate quality assurance team has to open or widen its specs’ a little so we can get enough supply to fill the needs of our sandwiches but never compromise quality.”

Spinazzola advised growers to be careful in keeping prices so high that it stunts demand. If people stop buying and demand doesn’t return as fast as falling prices, he said it could lower prices even more.

In mid-March, he said prices were beginning to fall from the high $20s to the lower $20s for the mature greens. DiMare quoted $27.95 for 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% No. One or better for the 5x6s.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 16 reported the same price for south Florida production and said 6x6s and 6x7s were selling for $25.95.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said tomato restaurant signs have started coming down.

“Relief is on the way,” he said March 16. “It’s unfortunate when our customers due to a lack of availability remove tomatoes from menus or reduce their offering, but hopefully they will appreciate the contribution tomatoes make to their product and quickly remove the signs and put us back on the menus.”