With food prices soaring in Canada, Quebec restaurant owner Michael Ghorayeb says the restaurant industry has two options for staying afloat: reduce portions or increase menu prices.
But when Ghorayeb saw the recent dazzling prices for lettuce, he said he was forced to opt for a third option: taking it off the menu altogether.
“It’s too much of a price change,” said the owner of Châteauguay’s BLVD Bar & Gril on Montreal’s south coast.
Lettuce is scarce in several parts of Canada — and costs much more than usual — after drought and crop disease affected supplies from California.
Ghorayeb says he bought 24 heads of lettuce for about $50. Now the same order from his supplier costs more than four times as much, at $220.
“I mean, those kinds of price increases, if you shave a little bit of iceberg lettuce and put it on a hamburger, you’re looking at almost a dollar per serving in cost. It’s completely spiraled out of control,” he said.
Tip of the iceberg
Ghorayeb is far from the only victim of the scarcity of the plants.
Whether you’re looking for a head of lettuce, a bag of romaine hearts or a salad pack, lettuce shortage warnings are popping up in stores across the country, pushing up prices.
Munther Zeid, owner of the Foodfare supermarket chain in Winnipeg, asks customers to be patient because he doesn’t know when the product will be back on the shelves.
“If you order a few boxes, you won’t get one. If you order five, you might get one,” he said.
Some restaurant chains in Canada, including Subway, Harvey’s and Wendy’s, have also been hit by the shortage, warning customers on their websites of potential impacts in some locations.
VIEW | Reports about rising lettuce prices after delivery problems:
Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the agri-food analysis lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the problems we see in Canada – one of the largest lettuce importers in the world – start with problems with our largest supplier: California.
Charlebois says crops in California were hit early by drought in September and October — the same weather conditions that led to the halting of Sriracha hot sauce sales this summer.
This autumn, however, lettuce crops were also hit by diseases, causing them to wilt in the fields.
“So there’s less output and less sales around the world, including exports to Canada, and that’s the main problem now,” Charlesbois said.
“So in retail we’re either seeing higher prices or no lettuce at all.”
Those reasons have made some think twice in the supermarket.
“Everything is so expensive, and to start paying $8 and something, $8.99 for an iceberg? It used to be $2.99. It’s crazy,” said Montreal shopper George Sousa.
He says it has led him to change his cooking habits.
The same goes for Joan Legair, another Montreal native who is now opting for other leafy greens.
“If it gets that price, I won’t buy lettuce, but I could use spinach instead,” she said. “I can be very innovative with my greens and that’s why I use other greens that are cheaper.”
Salad days will return
Charlebois says the lettuce shortage is “certainly a good case study” of the effects of climate change on the foods we eat.
“The virus or viruses that have affected the crops normally wouldn’t have existed without climate change,” he said.
However, he says there is light at the end of the tunnel this year.
Charlebois says he expects prices to get closer to normal as early as December, when Arizona is expected to take over and start exporting the last crop to Canada.
“We should be fine for the holidays as long as there are no recalls,” he said.
For now, restaurateurs like Ghorayeb say he will make his salads with other vegetables, such as mixed salad or kale, while burgers or any other dish typically served with lettuce as a garnish will have to do without.