What's a Mexican restaurant without guacamole? What's a hipster cafe without avocado toast? Some restaurateurs may be contemplating these questions this summer as the price of avocados has spiked to almost double the price a year ago.
In Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, El Tepeyac Cafe uses loads of avocados for its delicious homemade guacamole. In fact, it goes through about 50 boxes of the fruit every week. Operations manager Bernadette Thom says the restaurant has no choice but to pay more.
"I mean, we're in a Mexican restaurant, and everything pretty much on our plate requires guacamole," she says. "So to completely be out of it would not work."
El Tepeyac has been around since 1955, and Thom says the owners are resigned to price spikes. She says they try not to charge customers more, but in the past they have had to resort to charging a bit more during price spikes. The higher prices also mean they have to shop around.
"We always find avocados somewhere," says Thom. "If we can get a different quality or different sizes, like a little bit cheaper and they're a little bit smaller, or a different kind of avocado, then we'll do that as well too, until we can get through it."
There's a simple explanation for expensive avocados, says David Magaña, a senior horticulture analyst in Fresno, Calif., with RaboResearch: "We have the highest or the strongest demand for avocados in the U.S., probably ever."
Magaña analyzes wholesale prices from Mexico, which supplies most of the United States' avocados. He says 24-pound cartons of midsize avocados from Michoacán are selling for $66 each. That's 91% more expensive than they were a year ago. And prices were even higher earlier this month. Magaña says fruit and vegetable production is always subject to weather conditions. This year, production of California avocados was way down.
"Remember that last year we had a heat wave in California late in July, August?" he asks. "That impacted blooming. It started later than normal, and yields were lower this year." He says Mexican farmers had to take up the slack for California, so they sent their best.
But now they're running out.
As a result, some LA taquerias have been selling guacamole without avocados — without disclosing this to customers, reports Javier Cabral, the new editor in chief of the alternative news outlet L.A. Taco.
"The secret ingredient that I'm sure, you know, no taqueria would ever be 100% proud to admit is Mexican summer tender, little squash," he told NPR's All Things Considered. "The Mexican variety is light in color, almost the color of a nice buttery avocado. ... It's scary how much this fake guacamole tastes like the real guacamole."
When California avocados are out of season, the restaurant Sqirl simply takes avocado dishes off the menu. The popular eatery, in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood, is known for its gourmet avocado toast: an entire avocado on a thick slice of country bread from a local bread-maker, with garlic creme fraiche and topped with hot pickled carrots and homemade za'atar. "It's kind of wild and quirky, not what you think of avocado toast," says chef and owner Jessica Koslow.
Sqirl's avocado toast goes for $10 a slice. Koslow says she believes avocados are a luxury item, and she uses only those grown locally in California — and only when they are in season. "So that's where the challenge comes in," she says. "How do you have avocados year-round? We don't. But we're not everyone else."
By now, Koslow is used to seeing high prices for avocados everywhere. "Last year I was in New York and I saw avocados being sold in the Lower East Side for $4 an avocado," she says. "That shocked me. I remember laughing and taking a photo of it. And now it doesn't surprise me."
The good news is that prices are expected to be lower by September, as production ramps back up in Mexico.