Frigid weather may chill restaurant profits 

Last weekend’s freezing temperatures may spell higher produce costs that put a squeeze on local restaurateurs, forcing them to raise their prices, change their menus or eat their losses.

The chill weather may have done more than $1 billion in damage to the California citrus crop alone, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday. Restaurants that have fixed menus are already feeling the damage. Jesse Espinoza, manager of San Francisco’s Pancho Villa Tacqueria on 16th Street, said his restaurant is paying an extra $5 for a case of tomatoes, $10 per case of avocados and $6 per case of oranges used for fresh orange juice.

"We have got to eat it. We have to stay with the set prices. We can’t change it," he said. "Even the tomatillos went up recently, and we continue using the fresh. We never used the canned, because it’s a different taste."

The cold temperatures affect other favorite vegetables, according to Chris Brazeel, a sales manager at San Francisco produce wholesaler Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt. He deals in asparagus, which was damaged by 19- to 24-degree Fahrenheit temperatures in Mexico between Sunday and Tuesday, he said. The crop was previously going to be sold at $38 for a 28-pound box, but is now selling for $40 to $45 for an 11-pound box, he said. That affects not only restaurateurs but also supermarkets.

But for many chefs, changing menus to deal with changing market conditions is just part of the business, according to Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. A number of chefs said they are taking a wait-and-see approach, with some saying they may avoid certain menu items such as delicate salad greens, while others may raise prices on some dishes to reflect costs.

California’s microclimates are another factor, leaving some farms badly affected while others were barely touched. Chefs who source through farms instead of middlemen may vary their approach depending on the fate of their farmers.

"It’s a huge deal … [but] It’s not a total devastation of every single crop in California," executive chef Annie Somerville of Greens Restaurant in Fort Mason said.

But it is serious, especially because citrus is an important part of winter salad menus. She said she had just introduced a salad with avocados and three types of oranges that may need to be rethought or re-priced. But root vegetables such as beets are still a seasonal option, and some vegetables such as kale improve with a frost, she said.

E-mail Kate Williamson at kwilliamson@examiner.com.

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