Cinco de Mayo’s less than two weeks away, but the thought of serving a small ocean of margaritas leaves bar and restaurant owners feeling especially sour this year. A lime shortage has quadrupled the price of this key citrus fruit, leaving business owners scrambling for backup plans and other ways to make do with less.
Domestic eateries and watering holes source the bulk of their limes from Mexico, which leads the world in lime production and exportation. But the Mexican lime industry has been devastated by bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB for short) and recent heavy rains. According to The Associated Press, those problems have been compounded by Mexican cartels extorting lime growers.
The bottom line: A 40-pound case of limes now costs about $115. In better times, those same limes would cost closer to $30.
More than a dozen varieties of lime grow around the world, including the “blood lime” of Australia that’s a cross between a mandarin and red finger lime, and bumpy skinned kaffir limes that are a signature ingredient of Southeast Asian cooking.
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One lime reigns supreme for bartenders: the Persian lime. These plump, thin-skinned limes are packed with juice and taste slightly sweeter than the typical lime, making them the go-to for margaritas, mojitos and other cocktails geared for outdoor sipping. They’re also a signature mixer for classic cocktails such as the gin-based Last Word or a rum-soaked Old Cuban.
Jason Boggs, co-owner of The Shady Lady Saloon, feels pretty green these days when he sees an invoice for limes.
“I’m basically paying $60 per gallon of juice,” said Boggs. “It’s actually more expensive than a lot of the booze.”
Over at midtown’s Tres Hermanas, bartender Mark Neuhauser and crew normally juice two cases or more of limes daily to fuel their margarita menu. But they’ve had to seek new solutions during these lean times for limes.
Gone, for now, is fresh-squeezed lime juice. Enter the pre-packaged kind.
“Most people can’t tell the difference,” said Neuhauser. “But for those who come in a lot, they can tell. It’s not cool, but it’s about the best compromise we have.”
The lime shortage has caused such desperation that some bars are making their margaritas with lemon juice. Neuhauser tried this briefly at Tres Hermanas but didn’t find these lemon-ritas to his liking. So if you’re served a margarita that looks a little yellower and tastes lighter than usual, you might want to do a citrus check.
As the weather becomes sunnier, and if lime inflation persists, bars will likely be pushing frozen margaritas instead of the fresh-squeezed kind. Slurpee-styled margaritas use a less expensive concentrate instead of straight-from-the-fruit juice.
And don’t expect much in the way of lime wedge garnishes these days. Alaska Airlines pulled lime wedges from their beverage program in March, and bartenders like Neuhauser are thinking twice about adding lime garnishes for every drink order.
Many limes showing up locally don’t look that great anyway. Instead of boasting smooth, green skin, the hard-hit Mexican lime crop has left fruit with many brown spots on the peel.
Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, which is renowned for its extensive tequila program, recently raised the price of its margaritas to manage the lime shortage. Some Sacramento bars are meanwhile reluctant to raise drink prices, even with their operating costs getting squeezed from sky-high lime prices.
“It’s the nature of the beast in restaurants when prices fluctuate so much,” said Boggs. “We try to absorb as much as we can. Passing (the costs) along to the customer doesn’t help.”
Lime prices don’t appear to be trickling down soon. And while California leads the country in lime production, our “farm-to-fork” approach won’t be able to soothe the pain for months. California limes don’t reach their prime picking season until late autumn.
Neuhauser looks forward to breaking out the lime squeezer again. But he’s found one upside to this unfortunate scenario.
“You’re usually spending an hour or three squeezing limes for one shift,” said Neuhauser. “Now, it’s just a funnel and a bottle. Drink orders don’t take as long. But when the shortage is over, of course we’ll be squeezing fresh juice again.”