Lettuce fans tossed by soaring prices, leading to expensive salads, substitutions
Some Canadian restaurants, chains forced to take greens off menu or limit their use
With food prices soaring in Canada, Quebec restaurant owner Michael Ghorayeb says those in the restaurant industry have two options to stay above water: decrease serving sizes or increase menu prices.
But when Ghorayeb saw the recent eye-popping prices for lettuce, he said he was forced to opt for a third option: take it off the menu completely.
"It's too big of a price change," said the owner of Châteauguay's BLVD Bar & Gril on Montreal's South Shore.
Lettuce is in short supply in several parts of Canada — and costing a lot more than usual — after drought conditions and crop disease affected supplies from California.
Ghorayeb says he used to buy 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, that type of price increase, if you're shaving a little bit of iceberg lettuce and putting it on a burger, you're looking at almost a dollar per portion in cost. It's completely out of control," he said.
Tip of the iceberg
Ghorayeb is far from the only victim of the plants' paucity.
Whether you're in the market for a head of lettuce, a bag of romaine hearts or a salad kit, warnings of lettuce shortages are popping up in stores around the country, and that is pushing up prices.
Munther Zeid, owner of the Foodfare grocery store chain in Winnipeg, is asking customers to be patient as he doesn't know when the product will be back on the shelves.
"You order a case or two, you won't get none. You order five, you might get one," he said.
Some restaurant chains in Canada, including Subway, Harvey's and Wendy's, have also been affected by the shortage and are warning customers on their websites about potential impacts at some locations.
WATCH | Reports of rising lettuce prices in wake of supply issues:
Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the problems we're seeing in Canada — one of the largest importers of lettuce in world — start with issues with our biggest supplier: California.
Charlebois says California's crops were struck early by drought in September and October — the same weather conditions that led to the suspension of sales of Sriracha hot sauce this summer.
This fall, however, lettuce crops were also hit with disease, which left them wilted in the fields.
"So there's less output and fewer sales across the world, including exports to Canada, and that's the main issue right now," Charlesbois said.
"So in retail, we're either seeing higher prices or no lettuce at all."
Those reasons have some thinking twice at the grocery store.
"Everything's so expensive, and to go pay $8 and something, $8.99, for an iceberg? It used to be like $2.99 before. It's crazy," said Montreal shopper George Sousa.
He says it's led him to change his cooking habits.
The same can be said for Joan Legair, another Montrealer who's opting for other leafy greens in the meantime.
"When it gets to that price, I do not purchase lettuce. But I might use spinach instead," she said. "I can get very innovative with my greens and so I use other greens that are more affordable."
Salad days will return
Charlebois says the lettuce shortage is "certainly one good case study" of the impacts of climate change on the food we eat.
"The virus or viruses that have impacted crops wouldn't have been there normally without climate change," he said.
However, he says, there is a light at the end of tunnel this year.
Charlebois says he expects prices to return closer to normal as early as December, when Arizona is expected to take over and start exporting the latest harvest to Canada.
"We should be fine for the holidays, as long as there are no recalls," he said.
For the time being, restaurateurs like Ghorayeb says he'll be making his salads using other greens, such as mixed salad or kale, while burgers or any dish that's typically served with lettuce as a garnish will have to do without.
with files from Cameron MacIntosh