Skyrocketing Lime Prices Hit NYC Pie Producers

April 2, 2014 8:19 pm Last Updated: April 16, 2014 3:00 pm

NEW YORK—The price of limes has skyrocketed in recent months as the supply from Mexico, the United States’ primary supplier, registers record lows in production.

A spokesman for produce wholesaler D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York, Inc. said that a box of about 175-200 Persian limes used to cost between $12 and $20. Now he says, that same box costs between $100 and $110.

The rise in price is due to a confluence of factors. Poor winter weather in the lime growing regions of Mexico has made them harder to grow. On top of that, some farmers in the east of Mexico are still recovering from Hurricane Ingrid that uprooted trees along the coast. Lime trees take about five years from when they are planted to when they bear fruit.

On top of that, a bacterial disease called Huanglongbing has been affecting the trees that are left, making the fruit hard and bitter in the short term, and killing the trees in the long term.

Since the price of limes has jumped they have become a target of drug cartels. News reports from Mexico tell of farmers guarding their orchards by gunpoint from cartels seeking to steal the “green gold.”

“It was like the perfect storm of events that brought this current spike and shortage,” said Steve Tarpin, the owner of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie in Brooklyn. “But once you get the cartels involved, that just throws the whole equation.” 

For businesses that use lime as a garnish, the cost is pretty minimal. But for a businesses like Tarpin’s that use over 2,000 pounds of limes on a heavy month, expensive limes will mean expensive pies.

“Not today. But maybe next week they will be. They’re going to have to be. The cost has got to get passed on somehow,” said Tarpin.

Just on Wednesday, Tarpin told his assistant to start saving seeds. He is thinking about growing his own lime trees—right here in New York City.

“We’re checking on the feasibility based on the price that we pay year-round,” said Tarpin. “A tremendous amount of the cost is alone just in transportation, from point A to point B.

Being one of only two bakeries in the entire country that use fresh limes in their pies, Tarpin says he relies on a steady supply of the green fruit to make the product what it is—authentic.

The Little Pie Company in Manhattan also makes and sells their own key lime pies. So far, they say, they have not seen an increase in key lime prices, which isn’t surprising if they don’t use fresh squeezed lime juice.

Chef Ash Fulk at Brooklyn’s Hill Country Chicken says that while he has seen lime prices rise, the juice from concentrate or pre-squeezed lime juice has stayed the same. 

Prices for limes are not expected to go down anytime soon as Mexico will soon see winter, its toughest growing season.

Holly Kellum is a special correspondent in New York.