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Cold Florida weather means higher prices for fewer tomatoes

Thomas Barresi, co-owner of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace in

Thomas Barresi, co-owner of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace in Smithtown, holds up some of the vine ripe beefsteak tomatoes from Mexico that he selling in the store. (March 4, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

An unusually cold winter in Florida has put the squeeze on the U.S. tomato supply and led to price hikes at some Long Island groceries.

Tom Barresi, co-owner of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace, which has stores in East Meadow, Port Washington and Smithtown, said he's been relying largely on tomatoes from Mexico.

"There are absolutely no tomatoes coming out of Florida for the last month," said Barresi, 58. "And the tomato market has doubled."

Before Florida's supply crashed, Barresi said he was selling tomatoes for about 99 cents a pound. Now, he said, the price is around $2.

MORE: Learn how to grow your own tomatoes

The crunch is nationwide.

You can't get a slice of tomato on your Wendy's burger now without asking for one. Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch said he could remember such a step being taken just twice before during his 30 years with the company.

The tomato only-on-request rule was put in place not only because supply is down, Lynch said, but because the quality of available tomatoes isn't high. Wendy's doesn't expect the rationing to last long, however.

"If Mother Nature would throw some sunshine down in Florida, that would help," Lynch said. "We've been told it's a matter of weeks, not months."

Heber Zavala, produce director for Best Yet Market, which has 10 stores on Long Island, said under normal conditions, he can sell beefsteak tomatoes for 99 cents to $1.49 a pound. With the shortage, he's selling beefsteaks for $1.99 to $2.99 a pound. "It's had a big effect on us as retailers. Usually . . . this time of the year we are in full swing with tomatoes out of Florida."

Up the supply chain, things are just as tough. Denise Goodman is co-owner of M & R Tomato Distributors in the Bronx, which supplies produce to wholesalers, grocery stores and restaurants in the region, including on Long Island.

Depending on the kind of tomato, Goodman said she's selling a box for $20 to $40, or about double the price range of this time last year, when there was a glut. When tomato supply goes down and prices up, quality suffers, said Goodman, who admitted her customers are complaining. "People are passionate about their tomatoes," Goodman said, "that's for sure."

The tomato pinch hasn't been felt yet by area restaurants, said Mario Saccente, executive vice president of the Long Island Chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. That may be because restaurants rely heavily on canned tomatoes, Saccente said.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a growers' association, said supply should pick up in the middle of this month and return to normal by mid-April.

MORE: Learn how to grow your own tomatoes

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