Brace yourself ï¿½ your favorite restaurant menu is about to change. Five consecutive nights of freezing temperatures last week devastated a wide swath of California's farm fields, imposing $1 billion of damage on the state's citrus crops alone. So far, the impact on wholesale produce prices has been minimal. But, says a senior buyer for a company specializing in high-end fruits and veggies for restaurant kitchens, prices are poised to skyrocket. Greenleaf's Dale VanMatre says growers are still delivering citrus picked before the worst of the freeze. But he expects an industry statement by the end of this week, describing the full severity of fruit loss. Ocean Mist Farms, the Watsonville-based grower of artichokes, has already released a statement commenting on the devastation. "They're pretty much all black inside," VanMatre says. Small growers have suffered the worst losses. "All the little guys, the ones who grow specialty baby lettuces for us, they've been wiped out."
Local chefs are already feeling some pain, and expect to feel much, much more. "We use a lot of avocados and a lot of citrus fruits," says Christopher Lee, chef and owner of Eccolo on Fourth Street in Berkeley. "I was on the phone ordering last night, and our supplier said to expect the price for avocados to double." Lee currently uses about eight cases of avocados per week ï¿½ he currently pays $30 per case. They go into the restaurant's popular chopped salad, and guacamole garnishes more than one entrï¿½e. Joshua Pearl, general manager of Berkeley's 900 Grayson, says frost has changed the color of its lemons and limes. Pearl says he's already paying more for produce that's just not as pristine as usual, and expects prices to get even higher. He usually tries to buy local produce, but the weather is forcing him to buy some things from out of state. "We'll be changing certain things that are getting more expensive," he says. The kitchen plans to use vinegar instead of citrus juices in vinaigrettes, for example.
One bright spot has been to point out the value of produce sourced hyperlocally. Lee says Eccolo has the benefit of a network of Berkeley backyard growers who've been selling him persimmons, pomegranates, and Meyer lemons from trees unaffected by the harsh weather. "It makes me insulated to a certain degree," he says.
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