romaine lettuce shortage

Toronto restaurants scramble to deal with skyrocketing prices of romaine lettuce

Romaine lettuce is having a moment right now - and it's not good for Toronto restaurants who need the leafy greens to sell their salads.

Blame on drought, Tropical Storm Nicole or a deadly vegetable virus, prices of romaine and iceberg plants have reached unbelievable amounts, more than tripled in what produce providers were charging just months before.

This is especially challenging for Eva Liu of AAamazing Salad on Adelaide, who says it's almost impossible to keep up with the rollercoaster prices.

“The prices are up and down, it's not just down, it just keeps going up like crazy and then back to 'normal.' The price when it's back to kind-of normal is still higher than before,"  she tells blogTO.

Liu now purchases one case of romaine which comes with 12 bags, with three lettuce heads per bag, for around $120. Just two months ago, the same case was around $40.

"That makes us so nervous whenever we need to purchase produce. Every time I open the app to place the order it's so stressful."

For the popular Super and Cobb salads which are romaine-based, Liu says she now has to use a mix of spinach in an attempt to alleviate some costs.

"We just cannot waste any piece of romaine," she said.

Prices are up in supermarkets as well, with Liu finding the price of a standard bag of romaine nearly $15 and sometimes higher. 

She forwarded a note provided by her supplier which outlines the current state of the lettuce world.

"A virus spread by insects is causing widespread damage to lettuce crops in the Salinas Valley (California), the renowned Salad Bowl that provides more than one-half of America’s lettuce," it read

A link to that note states the ruthless impatiens necrotic spot virus will cost more than $100 million in lost revenue.

A second note cites "extreme weather and heavy disease pressure resulting in short supply, and poor quality" for lettuce, romaine and romaine hearts.

For Mandy Wolfe of the ever-popular Mandy's Gourmet Salads, fluctuating lettuce prices are "nothing new."

"Lettuce prices are up and the market is fluctuating a lot right now. With fresh produce, there is always unpredictability with supply shortages or price increases. We are constantly having to anticipate these changes and adapt."

But as a salad business, there is very limited options for lettuce alternatives with Mandy's looking at arugula and spinach as potential remedies.

Right now the lettuce dilemma is the main thing impacting Mandy's which, at this time, has decided to not raise prices.

"We'll be keeping a close eye on the situation and hopefully in the next couple of weeks we'll be in a better position to avoid price increases."

That's not the case for Liu, who said a small increase is inevitable.

"The supermarket and produce provider can change their prices every day but we cannot," she said.

She's also noticed a hike in prices for tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados too, adding more stress to an already pricey situation.

And it's not just small businesses feeling the pain.

National chain Swiss Chalet said their garden and caesar salads are not available right now and Subway said lettuce is unavailable at some of their restaurants, according to the Canadian Press.

But as both Liu and Wolfe note, lettuce prices continue to raise and fall, again and again, so there's a chance the coming weeks could provide some relief.

"For us, because the sales are up and down, we cannot predict anything, it's really not normal," said Liu. 

Lead photo by

Liz West

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