Tomatoes Back on Menus as Shortage Wanes

U.S. restaurant operators Friday said consumers should see tomato slices back on their burgers in the next few days following a recent shortage that led many chains to restrain their use of the round red fruit.

Wendy's International Inc. (WEN), Jack In The Box Inc. (JBX) and CKE Restaurants Inc. (CKR) unit La Salsa said tomato prices, which soared after hurricanes in Florida and heavy rains in California devastated crops in those states, have finally settled down to more normal levels.

Tomato prices hit a high of around $44 per 25-pound box 3 weeks ago but have since settled down to about $13 a box, just slightly above normal for this time of year, said Ed Beckman, the president of the California Tomato Commission (search).

That trade group's counterpart in Florida, the Florida Tomato Committee (search), said earlier this month that shipments were about 75 percent of what they were normally and that volumes would be back to normal by the third week of December.

The recent price spike and lack of large volumes of quality tomatoes have led burger chains like Wendy's and Jack in the Box to remove tomato slices from their sandwiches and forced some Mexican-style chains to reformulate their salsas.

At La Salsa, two tomato-based salsas have been removed from its salsa bar and the chain is relying more heavily on other kinds of salsas, like the new Holiday Cranberry Salsa and others made from mangoes and avocados, according to the chain's vice president of purchasing, Michele Rushing.

But this weekend, Wendy's plans to take down signs it has had up for the last couple of weeks in both its namesake restaurants and its Baja Fresh (search) Mexican food chain which told customers that tomatoes would be available by request only.

"The situation gets better every day," said Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini, who said new crops from Florida were now becoming available.

Jack In The Box, also, said tomato slices would be back on its burgers "in the next few days," according to spokesman Brian Luscomb.

La Salsa said its salsa bar should be back to normal by the week of Dec. 20.

"We are just waiting a little bit longer to make sure that there are no other weather-related issues," Rushing said.

Some chains, including McDonald's Corp.'s (MCD) Mexican-style Chipotle unit and Darden Restaurants Inc.'s (DRI) Italian-themed Olive Garden (search) unit, said access to a large network of suppliers meant they did not have to make any significant menu changes during the shortage.

"Other than a handful of restaurants in the Southwest, which had to supplement with cherry tomatoes, we never stopped selling Roma tomatoes," said Darden spokesman Mike Bernstein.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said consumer reluctance to buying tomatoes during the period of high prices had helped restaurant chains get access to the fruit during the shortage, but he nevertheless welcomed the return of more normal prices.

"It really looks like the worst of it is behind us now," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. "It will be back to business as usual pretty soon."