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HELENA – It might seem incongruous to eat fresh tomatoes in Montana in late winter in the first place, but a midwinter cold snap in Florida crippled the crop and sent prices for certain varieties soaring across the country.

Restaurant owners are feeling the pinch.

“We’ve stopped buying (slicing) tomatoes. Our suppliers aren’t buying them,” said Toby DeWolf, owner of Bert & Ernie’s on Last Chance Gulch in Helena. “The quality is not there, and they’re way too expensive. It’s a slice costing 30 cents at this point, so it’s just not worth it.”

Instead, DeWolf said he’s buying Roma tomatoes.

“They’re a little smaller, but we’re still giving people the option,” he said. “But they’re good tomatoes, with lots of flavor.”

The winter cold snap killed nearly three-quarters of the Florida tomato crop, according to news reports. A new Florida crop will be ready for harvest next month, so most people don’t expect prices to remain too high for long.

“This kind of thing basically happens once a year to something,” said Staggering Ox manager Jim Tolan, who recalled recent lettuce and spinach shortages as some of the perils of being a regular buyer of fresh produce. “As long as it’s not an extended thing, it’s just one of those things that comes with running a restaurant.”

Tolan said that from May through October, the restaurant uses mostly local tomatoes, from either Valley Farms or Farm in the Dell.

Tomatoes are selling from distributors at as much as $30 for a 20-pound box, a several-fold increase over the typical price, according to various reports.

At Wendy’s on Prospect Avenue, customers at both the drive-thru and inside registers see signs telling them that tomatoes are available by request only.

Greg McDonald, president of the 23-restaurant Wendy’s of Montana in Billings, which operates Helena’s store, said it’s only the third time in 40 years that the company has asked franchisees to hold the tomatoes unless customers request them.

“The quality isn’t that bad, they just don’t last long,” McDonald said. He said the signs are to make sure customers are aware that they can have tomatoes if they want them, but that certain menu items that are advertised with tomatoes, like the currently promoted “bacon and bleu” burger, won’t have tomatoes unless requested, even if a tomato is shown in the ad.

Restaurants aren’t the only businesses affected.

“I’ve stopped carrying regular slicer tomatoes, because I don’t think people would pay $5 a pound for them,” said Ward Sieber, produce manager at Van’s Thriftway. The same tomatoes were on his shelves for $1.69 a pound just two weeks ago, Sieber said, and he expects the price to fall just as quickly once the fruit is harvested in another part of the country.

Sieber said Roma tomatoes have already peaked and fallen in price, and hot house tomatoes, which he gets from Canada, are holding steady in the $3.00 to $3.30 range per pound.

Reporter John Harrington can be reached at (406)  447-4080 or at john.harrington@helenair.com.

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