Sweet sans tomatoes: Thanks to Mexico freeze, even namessake restaurants can't get enough tomatoes

Tim Scott, 53, of Naples, places tomatoes on his salad at Sweet Tomatoes at 10940 Tamiami Trl N. on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. After a severe freeze in Mexico, the price of tomatoes has risen significantly, prompting many restaurants, such as Sweet Tomatoes, to stop carrying them until prices lower. The restaurant anticipated running out of tomatoes on Tuesday.  Allie Garza/Staff

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Tim Scott, 53, of Naples, places tomatoes on his salad at Sweet Tomatoes at 10940 Tamiami Trl N. on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. After a severe freeze in Mexico, the price of tomatoes has risen significantly, prompting many restaurants, such as Sweet Tomatoes, to stop carrying them until prices lower. The restaurant anticipated running out of tomatoes on Tuesday. Allie Garza/Staff

Sweet Tomatoes is missing a key ingredient on its salad bar – fresh tomatoes.

A sign posted at the front of its restaurants explains why. “Mother Nature Strikes Again” it declares, blaming the shortage of fresh-cut vegetables on a devastating freeze in Mexico.

Some of the chain’s restaurants ran out of tomatoes for their salad bars on Monday.

At the Naples store, the last batch of sliced tomatoes was scooped out onto the 55-foot salad bar a few hours before the dinner rush. They were expected to go quickly.

“We can’t do nothing about mother nature,” said Derek Purr, the general manager in Naples.

The devastating freeze earlier this month in Mexico followed several hard freezes in Florida this winter.

Sweet Tomatoes gets many of its fresh-cut vegetables from Mexico through a supplier, said Tracy Marks, a corporate spokeswoman for Sweet Tomatoes.

“This is a day-by-day situation. So we are looking at vendors every day to see how fast we can get tomatoes back on the salad bar,” she said. “It is one of the most popular items that we had to remove.”

She said the chain doesn’t want to just “grab tomatoes from anywhere” because of concerns about food safety and food quality.

It’s not just tomatoes that are missing at Sweet Tomatoes. Due to the severity of the freeze in Mexico, the chain also isn’t serving fresh-cut cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini, yellow and butternut squash and eggplant on its salad bars, or including them in recipes. “When availability and quality are restored we’ll have them back,” the sign to customers promises.

Substitutions are being made so there are no empty spots on the salad bar. Among the additions are feta cheese, tofu and a few more specialty salads.

With supplies of winter vegetables down from Florida and Mexico, prices have shot up for what is available. Other restaurants are feeling the pinch.

Fast-food giant Wendy’s is serving tomatoes on its hamburgers and chicken sandwiches by request only. Signs are posted at drive-thru windows outside and at the ordering counters inside the restaurants.

“From what we understand, the shortage is probably going to continue through the middle part of April, when the new crop is available,” said Kitty Munger, a spokeswoman for Wendy’s in Ohio.

Wendy’s still has plenty of grape tomatoes for its salads. The round ones, in particular, are really scarce, Munger said.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, which markets the state’s round tomatoes, said the freeze in Mexico was probably the worst that the country has seen in 50 years.

Growers are getting more than $30 for a 25-pound box of round tomatoes, up from the “lower teens” a few weeks ago, Brown said. Market prices are even higher, possibly as much as $45 a box.

“Those prices will moderate quite likely sometime in March or early April,” Brown said.

When new supplies come in, he’s concerned the demand won’t be there after consumers get used to not having them.

He said it’s unusual for Mexico and Florida to both have severe freezes in the same year.

Naples Tomato, an independent Italian restaurant in North Naples, gets its beefsteak tomatoes for its sandwiches and salads from Immokalee. “They have gone up from $15 to $23 a case, which is pretty dramatic,” said Jack Serfass, a co-owner of the restaurant. “Also, the quality, just in the last seven days, has really been a problem. We’re actually throwing some of those away.”

Normally, he said, the restaurant would turn away cases of tomatoes if there were any quality problems, but with the shortage Serfass is accepting what he can get. The tomatoes coming in now are from plants hurt by the local freezes.

“We haven’t changed any prices and we don’t plan to,” Serfass said. “We’ll just absorb the price increase.”

Fortunately, he said, the tomatoes for the restaurant’s sauces come from Italy, and they aren’t in short supply.

Having no tomatoes “would not be OK,” considering his restaurant’s name, Serfass said.

Customers of Sweet Tomatoes in Naples seemed OK with the restaurant not having tomatoes and a few other vegetables. With the last tomatoes running out, there was no mad rush for them on Tuesday afternoon. Tim Scott, a Naples Realtor, said the temporary shortage of vegetables won’t keep him away.

“I would still come,” he said. “I would work around it.”

He goes to the restaurant about once a week. “It’s a great place for me to bring clients,” he said. “It’s just a great place to come for lunch.”

Bernard DiMarco, 80, a seasonal Bonita Springs resident, plopped a few tomatoes on his plate, even though he thought they looked a little too ripe. He said he wouldn’t really miss them.

“It’s not that important,” he said. “They have a lot of food – a lot of variety.”

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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