Fast food chains face tomato famine

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter

NEW YORK ( -- Fast food joints are scrambling to find alternate sources for one of America's favorite sandwich toppings after a winter freeze took a huge bite out of Florida's tomato harvest.

Due to unusually cold winter weather, 60% to 70% of Florida's tomato crop was destroyed, said Terence McElroy, a spokesman at the Florida Department of Agriculture. And because the sunshine state produces about 75% of U.S. tomatoes, prices across the country have spiked.

A 25-pound box of tomatoes from south Florida is selling for $30, up more than 300% from a year ago, when a box of tomatoes cost about $6.50 to $7, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

Because ingredients make up about 30% of the price of a typical fast food meal and tomatoes go into nearly every sandwich or burger, a price spike could chew up profits in no time.

"We're seeing the effects in restaurants and produce aisles at grocery stores, but fast food chains in particular are being impacted, because those restaurants buy tomatoes in bulk and put at least a thin slice on almost everything," said McElroy.

'Sorry, out of tomatoes'

Restaurants are trying to offer their customers uninterrupted tomato supply without raising prices. For some large chains that means getting tomatoes from other sources. But others are only offering the fruit "upon request," or slicing tomatoes from menus altogether.

Burger King was so low on tomatoes in the last couple weeks that some of its restaurants were forced to stop offering them.

"We just didn't have them for a few days, so we put up a sign from corporate saying we're sorry, we're out of tomatoes," said an employee at a Burger King in Missouri Valley, Iowa.

A Burger King spokeswoman confirmed there have been "spot outages of tomatoes," and the chain "will continue to resupply Burger King restaurants with tomatoes that meet our standards as they become available."

While fast food chains like Hardee's and Carl's Jr. avoided price hikes by sourcing their tomatoes from Mexico prior to the freeze, restaurants that typically rely on the Florida crop are looking elsewhere.

Subway usually purchases its tomatoes from Florida at this time of year, which has an earlier tomato season than other parts of the country because of its warmer climate. In the spring, as tomato seasons begin elsewhere, the chain starts looking to places like California and Mexico for tomatoes.

To maintain a steady supply of tomatoes, Subway has switched its sourcing earlier than usual this year, said Les Winograd, a company spokesman.

The effect on your burger

Fast food chains are doing everything they can to keep the shortage from affecting their customers' dining experience. Denny's is hoping prices stabilize soon, and has not made any menu changes so far.

But some changes may be unavoidable. Subway, for example, typically purchases a specific type of tomato from Florida, but surging prices have forced the sandwich chain to experiment with different varieties.

"Because of the freeze in Florida and because certain tomatoes are becoming harder to come by, we're going to be purchasing some other varieties that are not in as short of supply," Winograd said.

Switching to a new product or source poses a risk for these chains, because customers could perceive it as lower quality, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry research firm Technomic Inc.

"It's a question of if you are going to be those that opt for a lower price and sometimes lower quality products or if you are going to maintain the level of quality your customers expect," he said.

But substitutions might be better than no tomatoes at all. The lack of tomatoes at some Burger Kings really hit a nerve with certain customers.

"Burger King, I am through with you," a customer who received five tomato-less Whopper Jr.'s from Burger King said in an online consumer forum,

But some chains believe their customers will be more understanding.

Since last week, Wendy's has been including tomatoes in its sandwiches and burgers only upon request, said Denny Lynch, a company spokesman.

"We're doing this in all U.S. stores for two reasons," Lynch said. "One is availability -- we can't get as many tomatoes as we need -- and secondly, the color, size and quality has been affected by the deep freeze in Florida, so the quality might not meet customers' expectations."

Lynch said Wendy's has placed signs explaining the situation outside the restaurant near the drive-through window and next to the cash registers inside, and that so far, customers have been very understanding.

"We've actually had a number of people compliment us that we told them about it beforehand," he said. "Everybody knows that we've had a harsh winter, so they're very understanding about it."'s Andrew Keshner contributed to this report To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,538.23 -25.07 -0.15%
Nasdaq 4,364.62 -5.15 -0.12%
S&P 500 1,931.09 0.42 0.02%
Treasuries 2.56 0.00 0.16%
Data as of 10:18am ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 15.34 0.09 0.59%
Apple Inc 95.96 0.36 0.38%
Facebook Inc 73.07 0.42 0.58%
General Electric Co 25.25 0.10 0.40%
Micron Technology In... 31.24 0.69 2.26%
Data as of 10:02am ET


Malaysia Airlines was in major trouble even before the twin disasters of Flight 370 and Flight 17 claimed the lives of 537 people. More

The U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs in July. But that's lower than the number of jobs added In June ... and it was not as strong as what economists expected. More

LinkedIn shares surged in after-hours trading Thursday following strong second-quarter earnings, following the likes of Facebook and Twitter. More

Terrell White has had a profit-sharing plan for his employees since 1981, believing that if the staff isn't happy, guests won't be either. More

Get paid to go on vacation, receive a couple of bonus weeks at the end of the year or take as much time as you need. Such vacation policies are more than a dream at some small, niche -- and often tech-based -- companies. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.