You want a tomato with that? Cold weather creates shortage

Freezing temperatures have damaged Florida's tomato crop, forcing prices to rise. The tomato shortage has some retailers in a pickle.

"The vines were damaged to the point that the crop was devastated," said Charles Hall, executive director for the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

At Wendy's restaurants nationwide, tomatoes are currently available only by request.

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature," Denny Lynch, Wendy's spokesman, said. "But we feel it’s the smart thing to do to let customers know, because we don’t want them to be surprised."

This time of the year, Florida is typically responsible for producing most of the tomatoes in the United States, but they are grown elsewhere. You can get tomatoes -- but you've got to be willing to pay for them.

"Our food costs will feel the hit, but our customers won't," said Kevin Vandiver, director of supply chain for Moe's, based in Atlanta.

Tomatoes are a crucial to the menu for the chain of 405 restaurants, Vandiver said. Pulling tomatoes off the menu isn't an option, and fortunately, the company has various suppliers, he said.

Many in the business say it's too early to panic. In the current economy, prices can fluctuate quickly.

"If it isn't tomatoes, it's something else," said David Castle, manager of the Bambinell's Italian Restaurant, near Northlake Mall. "We're still putting them in salads. It's part of the business."

Spokespersons for Chick-fil-A and Subway say the tomato shortage will affect the restaurant chains minimally. That's because Florida isn't the only place growing the red veggies.

California and Mexico also produce tomatoes, and growers there may help fill in the gap from the Florida freeze.

Georgia tomato growers, who plant about 4,000 acres annually, could even benefit from Florida's loss, experts say. It's still a few weeks before tomatoes will be planted in Georgia, according to Cliff Riner, county extension agent for Tattnall County in southeast Georgia.

"If we don’t have any more freezes, Georgia tomato growers could benefit," said Terry Coleman, deputy agriculture commissioner for Georgia.

Coleman said the damage to Florida's tomato crop could reach reach $300 million.

"If that’s the case, Georgia tomato growers will at least a get a little higher this year," he said.

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