Looking for lime? Get in line

• Shortage puts the squeeze on bars and Mexican eateries

The Associated Press /

LOS ANGELES — Every time a bartender at trendy Los Angeles fusion eatery Luna Park squeezes a shot of lime into a drink these days, owner Peter Kohtz says he winces a little.

Luna Park, known for its large selection of craft cocktails, is one of thousands of restaurants from coast to coast that have fallen victim to the Great Green Citrus Crisis of 2014 — a severe shortage of limes that has meant that the fruit has skyrocketed in price in recent weeks.

A case of 200 or so fetches between $80 and $130 now, up from about $15 last year — the result of a perfect storm of circumstances from citrus disease that struck Florida in 2001 and wiped out most lime groves to flooding to the efforts of drug cartels to disrupt supplies in Mexico, the biggest U.S. supplier.

The cost might not seem like that big of a deal until one realizes that it’s lime juice that’s squeezed into every margarita, mojito or mai tai. It’s also lime that’s chopped up and mixed with fresh fish to create ceviche. It’s lime, mixed with avocado, that makes up guacamole — a mainstay at every Mexican restaurant.

“It’s just one of those things that you take for granted. You never really think about it because it’s always there,” said Kohtz, noting his bartenders squeeze an entire lime’s worth of juice into most specialty drinks.

So far, the price spike doesn’t seem to have been passed on widely to consumers, according to industry officials, but people are beginning to notice it in other ways.

Alaska Airlines stopped putting limes in in-flight beverages a couple of weeks ago. In Phoenix, the Arizona Republic reports that a bar and restaurant group is offering a free cocktail, glass of wine or beer to anyone who brings in 5 pounds of limes.

Which raises the question: If limes grow on backyard trees in Phoenix, why are they so expensive?

Because they don’t really grow well enough in most of the U.S. to be produced commercially, says Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department.

Until 2001, Crane said, Florida produced half of all the limes consumed in the United States. But then a devastating citrus canker outbreak led officials to order almost all of Florida’s lime groves destroyed and the industry never recovered. Mexico began producing more than 90 percent of the limes now consumed in the United States.

In most of California, the weather isn’t warm or humid enough to produce commercial quality limes.

Mexico’s crop, meanwhile, was hit by myriad problems this year, including unusually heavy rains and citrus disease and disruptions due to drug cartels. So until the price spike ends, Kohtz of Luna Park says he’s come up with the only alternative he can think of.

“I tell the bartenders, ‘Squeeze those limes extra hard. Squeeze out every drop you can.’”