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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Organized crime and drug cartels in Mexico now extend to stealing limes. US gets 97% of its limes from Mexico

4/21/14, "Restaurants take extreme measures to cope with lime crisis," NY Post, Tim Donnelly

"Welcome to the great lime panic of 2014. A huge shortage is the result of a nasty cocktail of conditions in Mexico, where 97 percent of US limes are grown. Heavy rains knocked the blossoms off many trees, reducing yield. A bacteria that’s long been ravaging citrus trees in Mexico didn’t help either, but the real trouble came when criminals and drug cartels started looting the groves and hijacking delivery trucks

A case of limes used to cost as little as $30; prices have shot up to as high as $200. And the limes are smaller — golf-ball-sized fruit that doesn’t produce much juice.

“All of a sudden, this thing I can always have is a product of scarcity,” says Phil Ward, owner and beverage manager of Mexican joint Mayahuel in the East Village. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this.”

Even the casual restaurant-goer may have noticed lemons replacing limes on taco plates, lime-based drinks disappearing from menus and lemons making an understudy appearance as cocktail garnishes. Order a Corona? Many bartenders won’t give you a lime unless you demand it.

And so, with the brutal winter finally breaking, the limepocalypse has set off a full-scale panic for bartenders and restaurant owners, with a lime black market of sorts popping up around the city. Some are adding a dollar or two to the cost of a margarita; other spots are taking the hike on the chin, hoping prices drop soon.

“People are basically claiming to be citrus drug dealers,” says Noel, only half-joking: Bartenders report friends from around the country are posting pictures on Facebook of limes wrapped and labeled in plastic bags like pounds of cocaine.

One savvy New Yorker, an air conditioner repairman with friends in the restaurant business, has been driving a rented U-Haul truck to an orchard in Florida and filling it with limes to sell to bars and restaurants in Washington Heights.

“He saw an opportunity to profit from this,” says Esteban Ordóñez, owner of tequila-centric bar Burning Waters Cantina in Greenwich Village, who knows the enterprising lime trucker. “He’s working to prepare A/C units, and he’s getting ready for the summer, and he put one and one together.”

The hauler expanded his operation to two trucks last week, though Ordóñez and other bar workers say that it’s a short-term solution. (The smuggler declined to comment to The Post.)

Ordóñez went on a hunt of his own, driving around Queens and Brooklyn looking for small produce shops that might have a stash. He found one, Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. The price was $110 for a case of about 200 limes — still costly, but $50 cheaper than his distributor.

“Next time we came back they were out — no limes,” says Ordóñez, who then haggled the owner of a nearby stand down to $135 per case. Still, he was only allowed to buy three.

Everyone is joking about the size of the limes we have now. They look like little pingpong balls,” Ordóñez says. “A lot of people have commented, ‘Is that a real lime?’”"...

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