Windsor pizzeria selling romaine lettuce after iceberg prices skyrocket

The price for a case of iceberg lettuce has risen to an amount that one Windsor pizzeria owner can't afford, so he's settled on sticking with romaine lettuce.

Restaurant owner says the price of iceberg lettuce has tripled since the outbreak

A number of businesses in Windsor and Essex County are not selling romaine lettuce, after the Public Health Agency of Canada advised people not to eat it after an outbreak of E. coli. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The owner of a small pizzeria in Windsor says he's currently operating on a "budget to survive" and is unable to afford iceberg lettuce as a suitable replacement for its feared counterpart — romaine lettuce.

Joe Barakat, who did not want to publicize his pizzeria's name out of fear it may scare away customers, said it's left him no choice but to continue selling romaine lettuce — some which is locally-grown and some which is imported into Canada.

"The problem is with the romaine lettuce, but we're still using it because that's what's available on the market at a normal price," said Barakat, who always warns customers of the presence of romaine lettuce in the pizzeria before a customer places an order.

"[Cases of iceberg lettuce] went from $29 to $30 a box to $105. Right now, it's dropping little by little, but we're still talking about $89 a box," he said, adding each box includes about 24 to 28 heads of lettuce.

A case of iceberg lettuce currently sells at Windsor's Wholesale Club on Dougall Avenue for $89.97, which Barakat says he just can't afford. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Aside from pizza, Barakat​'s independently-owned business sells sandwiches, salads and gyros — which all contain romaine lettuce.

"That $3.99 for a head of lettuce — it doesn't even make one salad. And when you're selling the salad for $5 or $6, you're losing on that."

He said some customers will still order items which contain romaine lettuce, but a majority will just order those items without lettuce. On the rare instance, he said customers will cancel their entire order altogether.

One of the places where Barakat​ purchases lettuce from is Wholesale Club, which is owned by Loblaws Inc.

In a statement to CBC News, the supermarket chain acknowledged there has been a surge in the price of iceberg lettuce and attributed it to "increased demand on limited supply."

"We expect that as romaine becomes available again from safe growing regions that the cost will return to normal," said Loblaws Inc.

Small businesses struggle to compete

For Barakat​, trying to compete with bigger pizza franchises like Pizza Pizza and Domino's is difficult. He said he's "barely making enough to survive" and it's impossible to make up for lost revenue as a small business.

"The medium salad for some places, it goes for $9 or $10. So whatever they pay for the head, it's okay. They're not losing much. They're making a little bit of profit on it."

"But for the small businesses which sell the salad for $5 and $6, they're losing because you have cucumbers, tomatoes, the sauce," said Bakarat, adding small pizzerias can't afford to raise salad prices beyond $5 to $10 since customers simply won't accept that.

Barakat's pizzeria sells gyros and salads, similar to what's shown here, as well. Many customers have been steering clear of them, however, since those items contain romaine lettuce. (CBC News)

The success of his pizzeria isn't solely dependent on lettuce. After all, Barakat​ sells pizza more than any other type of food item.

But as a small business, just one order cancellation can leave a significant dent behind.

"We're putting pennies just to survive. Any sale, any customer that we lose, it's a loss of business. That will affect our bills, our property tax and the costs of the restaurant."

In Canada, the E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce has resulted in 24 confirmed illnesses.

About the Author

Sanjay Maru

Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. Email him at sanjay.maru@cbc.ca.