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Consumers forced to swallow higher price for less lettuce

| Thursday, March 14, 2002

Lettuce heads are shrinking and consumers' heads are shaking as a California cold snap has zapped the late winter crop, driving up prices to nearly triple the normal level over the past four weeks.

"I didn't buy any today," Nadine Hibbard of Monroeville said as she left the Giant Eagle store there Wednesday. "I didn't even look at the price because I knew it was going to be high."

Relief, one local grocery supplier said, is likey a month or more away.

Ray West, spokesman for SuperValu Inc. in New Stanton, Westmoreland County, the primary supplier for 75 area Foodland and 85 area Shop 'n Save stores, said the cold spell has set the lettuce harvest back at least a month, maybe two.

"Usually, the temperature increases by several degrees a day in the lettuce growing areas of California beginning around the second week of January, so that by the time February arrives lettuce is growing at harvest temperatures. But just today (Wednesday) it was 32 degrees out there," West said.

More than 50 percent of the nation's lettuce comes from three California areas — the Imperial Valley in the southeastern corner of the state, the area around Huron in Fresno County and the area around Salinas in Monterey County, according to Jesus Valencia, farm adviser for the University of California system.

Ted Koutsouliou, produce manager at the Haymaker Shop 'n Save in Monroeville, said that at the current price of $1.99 a head for iceberg lettuce, the store is losing money on a case of 24 heads that now costs nearly $50.

He said the store briefly experimented with prices of $2.49 a head. "They hardly sold. Not many people were willing to pay that much," Koutsouliou said.

At the Greensburg Giant Eagle, Kathy Stewart said salad has become a big part of her diet. "I do think it's high. Right now, I'm on a diet, so I'll bite the bullet and pay a little more this time," she said.

Not so for Mary Miseraco of Mars. "Not long ago it was 99 cents, now one store had it for $3 a head, which I think is ridiculous. I won't buy it, not when it costs that kind of money," she said.

Customers at John McGinnis and Co. in Castle Shannon, where prices yesterday ranged from $1.49 for a head of iceberg lettuce to $2.79 for a pound of romaine and leaf lettuce, said they wouldn't stop buying lettuce regardless of the prices.

"Our diets call for it, so I would buy it anyhow," said Richard A. Roxas, a Mt. Lebanon resident who stopped by the store for some escarole at $1.99 a bunch.

Mary J. Allen, of Whitehall, said she goes through about two heads of lettuce a week. "We use it for sandwiches, salads. I would just budget for it," she said of the price increase. "And I might use more carrots and radishes."

Still, Allen said she's found that prices at John McGinnis are less expensive than at other stores. "I don't go anywhere else (for produce)," she said.

At Giant Eagle, which sells eight million heads of lettuce a year in its 210 stores, a sign at the lettuce bin explains the shortage predicament:

"These conditions are expected to persist for the next several weeks, resulting in smaller than normal head size and general supply problems."

Haymaker Shop 'n Save's Koustouliou said, in 10 years as a produce manager, he has never seen lettuce prices this high for this long.

Prices normally range, he said, from 89 cents to $1.19 for iceberg, and anywhere between $1.19 and $1.49 a pound for leaf and romaine lettuce.

Those two varieties now sell for $2.99 a pound.

The price spike also has restaurant managers closely watching crop reports.

"We're double-checking the quality to make sure the yield is correct and ordering much tighter," said Larry Corson, manager of the Buca di Beppo restaurant in Station Square, which buys 10 cases each of iceberg and romaine per week.

Buca has not resorted to raising prices for salads.

"We're eating it (the price increase)," Corson said. "It will balance out. At some point, lettuce prices will be unusually low."

Brooks Broadhurst, vice president of purchasing at Eat 'n Park Hospitality Group, which buys 1,000 cases of lettuce a week to keep its salad bars stocked, said the family restaurant chain has been buying pre-cut lettuce from a food processor in Wheeling, W.Va., helping it avoid some of the brunt of the price increase on head lettuce.

But that reprieve may not last long if that supplier is forced to buy on the open market as its own supplies dwindle, he said.

But Eat 'n Park will not raise prices either, Broadhurst said. "That's the cost of doing business."

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