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Lettuce prices are skyrocketing. Local restaurant owners are eating the cost — for now

A female restaurant owner holds a salad.
Jasmin Singer
Andrea Parros, owner of Red Fern, holds a salad. Even though Red Fern and essentially all restaurants are being hit hard by rising food prices, Parros says she is doing her best not to raise menu prices.

The owner of Voula’s on Monroe Avenue doesn’t want to charge you more for salad.

But the skyrocketing prices of food — up 10.6% from last year at this time — are putting Voula Katsetos-Garwood, who started her namesake restaurant almost 11 years ago, on edge.

“We make about 15% less on each salad sale,” she says, “but we are hopeful that the price will come down again soon. If it stays high, then I’ll have to adjust accordingly.”

One of the hardest-hit commodities in terms of price increases is lettuce; romaine hearts grown in California are, according to some sources, two to three times the cost from last year. But, unlike some other restaurant staples, the reason behind the lettuce increase is not just inflation: it’s also bugs.

Last fall, California’s Salinas Valley, an area dubbed the “Salad Bowl” because it grows half the country’s supply of lettuce, was infested by an insect-borne virus — impatiens necrotic spot virus, a disease caused by sucking insects known as thrips — that destroyed more than 80% of the crop. That resulted in the price of lettuce surging nationwide. Though the cost varies depending on location, a box of romaine — usually costing $25-$30 on the East Coast — is now setting many wholesale buyers back by up to $100.

So Katsetos-Garwood got creative, making a pivot in her lettuce purchasing.

“The cost of the case at wholesale supplier Restaurant Depot went up from $40 a case to $85,” she says.

Then she found a case at Wegmans for $52. Though that’s still much higher than the norm, she sees her workaround as good enough for now.

Just down the road from Voula’s, iconic vegan eatery Red Fern is also doing its best not to raise menu prices. But like other restaurants, they are being hit hard by rising prices.

“The cost of literally everything goes up every week,” says owner Andrea Parros.

But Parros is absorbing the extra costs as an effort to support her loyal customers.

“Very few of our menu items have increased in price after COVID,” she says. “We keep the item cost low — sandwiches are under $10 before upgraded sides or any add-ons — and we rely on people adding add-ons or enhanced sides to increase revenue.”

But not every restaurateur has been in a position to absorb the costs of rising prices, especially given the increases that distributors are also facing.

Aria Matthews, owner of Greece’s New Roots Coffeehouse — which doesn’t serve lettuce — has had to raise prices an average of 25% due to increases from distributors.

“We haven’t had too many complaints yet, but it’s very early,” she says. “Our menu hasn’t changed yet, either, but it’s too soon to tell what the long-term effects will be.”
Matthews says even the bumped-up prices do not cover the restaurant’s increase in costs.

“Unless we have a significant influx in sales, we will definitely profit less in 2023 than in 2022,” she says. “I just refuse to put more of the burden on our customers, so we will try our hardest to power through 2023 and see what it brings.”

Just as restaurant owners battle with increasing prices in lettuce, there’s been a surprising twist.

Kale, customarily seen as either garnish or a key part of health-food culture, is now cheaper than lettuce. For many vegetable-heavy restaurants, kale might just become the saving grace – for now, anyway.

Jasmin Singer is the host of WXXI’s Weekend Edition and Environmental Connections, as well as a guest host for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Connections.