Lettuce crunch: spike in prices forces restaurants to ‘pivot’

The cost of lettuce is spiking along with the rest of grocery items and Saskatchewan restaurants are deciding whether they can keep the item included in their meals.

Wholesale distributors are saying that demand for iceberg and romaine lettuce is skyrocketing past the current supply and that prices are expected to continue upwards.

Currently, Canada imports most of its lettuce from other countries. In 2020, Canada was the second-largest importer of lettuce in the world, bringing in $429 million in lettuce from the United States alone.

Salinas Valley in California currently accounts for US $1.2 billion in annual lettuce production. The raised price of the vegetable is a result of a virus sweeping across the crops, weakening and stunting growth. This year, the valley lost more than 80 per cent of its crops.

“Our restaurant owners are seeing their food costs go up with respect to their lettuce prices,” said Jennifer Henshaw, Restaurants Canada western director. “That’s really caused them to pivot in a lot of ways to different types of greens or pulling lettuce off their menu entirely.”

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Henshaw said price hikes will hopefully ease around Christmas time.

“I would say for the next few weeks we are certainly going to see that pitch point with the cost staying high.”

Taylor Morrison, co-owner of Living Sky Cafe in Saskatoon, said she is seeing lettuce prices reach $140 a case, three times the normal rates.

“We do a ton of fresh salads. A big part of our business is using fresh ingredients so seeing that price increase is something that we have had to juggle and manoeuvre around,” said Morrison. “We have definitely had to do a slight price increase to accommodate.”

Although it might be easier to remove lettuce-based meals from the menu, Morrison said it is not an option for them.

Click to play video: 'Grocery prices devour Saskatchewan residents’ wallets'

Grocery prices devour Saskatchewan residents’ wallets

“We really enjoy keeping our menu with the ability for people to have something that’s a little bit lighter at lunchtime. We don’t have any deep-fried food so including fresh lettuce on our menu is something that is super important. So we will not be pulling salads from our menu, we won’t be pulling items that have lettuce on them.”

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Living Sky Cafe does all of its own grocery shopping for its restaurant and is experiencing price spikes in every area.

“I know what’s been happing with our local providers. They’ve had a tough year,” said Morrison. “It’s been difficult for everybody, not just for the restaurant industry but for everyone — producers, farmers, factories.”

Jim Bence, president and CEO of Hospitality Saskatchewan, says the rise in prices is happening “across every piece of the supply chain, so whether it’s fuel, or it’s lettuce today, it could be chicken tomorrow.”

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“The big challenge for operators is they understand the consumer will only absorb so much of an increase before they simply stay home. How much can you raise that price to still have people sitting in those seats?”

Morrison predicts that inflation is going to cause many Saskatchewan restaurants and tourist attractions to close their doors permanently.

“They are working shifts and that profit, whatever they may make, if any, they are going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Bence. “Arguably, we are in a tougher spot today than we were in the middle of the pandemic.”

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