Restaurants feel the crunch of more vegetable shortages (and why cabbage is no substitute for lettuce)

Adi, co-sous chef at Neighbourhood Wine, where "crazy out of control pricing" of fresh produce means constant changes to ...
Adi, co-sous chef at Neighbourhood Wine, where "crazy out of control pricing" of fresh produce means constant changes to the menu. Photo: Paul Jeffers

When restaurant wholesalers started asking upwards of $15 for a single iceberg lettuce, chef Shannon Martinez despaired.

"How is that even f---ing possible? I knew produce was getting expensive, but that is next level," says the owner of hatted Smith & Daughters vegan bar and eatery in Collingwood, Melbourne.

"A chicken is cheaper, per kilogram, than an eggplant right now. It's a pretty sad day when the life of an animal is worth less than a vegetable."

Nick Smith at Rising Sun Workshop, Newtown, has been left with no choice but to make menu changes due to the current ...
Nick Smith at Rising Sun Workshop, Newtown, has been left with no choice but to make menu changes due to the current fresh produce shortage. Photo: Steven Siewert

A disastrous growing season in southern Queensland pushed produce prices to record levels this winter. It was the latest blow for a hospitality industry struggling to recover from the one-two punch of COVID-related labour shortages and logistics problems.

In NSW, Burgerhead co-owner Tim Rosenstrauss estimates the price hike will cost his Penrith eatery upwards of 50 cents in profit per burger, but says he would rather cop the cost than substitute lettuce for cabbage, like fast food giant KFC has done in recent weeks.

"I ordered a KFC burger the other day, forgetting about the change, and it's just not as good," Rosenstrauss says.

"It's a pretty sad day when the life of an animal is worth less than a vegetable." says chef Shannon Martinez.
"It's a pretty sad day when the life of an animal is worth less than a vegetable." says chef Shannon Martinez. Photo: Simon Schluter

"I would never do that. Lettuce and cabbage are two very different items, with very different textures and flavours."

Shaun Lindhe is the national manager for AUSVEG, the peak industry body for vegetable and potato industries. He says repeated flooding events created nationwide produce shortages and contributed to soaring production costs.

"I've never seen it like this before," Lindhe says.

Advertisement

"When you include the rising cost of fertiliser and petrol, some farmers say their cost of production has gone up 60 per cent."

Lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, green beans and brassicas are most affected, whereas hardier produce such as pumpkins and root vegetables remain in strong supply. Shortages are predicted to last until spring.

Restaurants such as Martinez' plant-based eatery are left with "no choice" but to make major menu changes.

Staff serving up food at Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North.
Staff serving up food at Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North.  Photo: Paul Jeffers

"I'm no longer writing menus based on seasonality or desire or creativity," Martinez says.

"I'm designing my menu purely based on cost."

Menu items such as Martinez' Tunisian chopped salad with coal-roasted zucchini, eggplant and capsicum have been scrapped entirely.

Nick Smith suggests the "harsh reality" of produce shortages could have a silver lining.
Nick Smith suggests the "harsh reality" of produce shortages could have a silver lining. Photo: Steven Siewert

"If I was to make money on that I'd have to charge $40 for it. No one in their right mind would pay that much for a starter," Martinez says.

At Rising Sun Workshop in Newtown, Sydney, owner-chef Nick Smith is also left with no choice but to make menu changes.

"Some dishes we were contemplating were put to one side, and where we might have used delicate herbs to garnish a dish, that's no longer an option," he says.

Smith will be focusing on "hardier and sturdier" vegetables in strong supply, such as pumpkins, root vegetables and citrus. New season yuzu will feature heavily, incorporated into a rub, a vinegar, and a pickled salad.

"It's fortunate we're putting out winter menus at the moment, because they're not so leafy and bright," Smith says.

At Neighbourhood Wine in Melbourne's Fitzroy North, head chef Almay Jordaan dodges "crazy out of control pricing" by making weekly changes to her menu.

With green beans, iceberg lettuce, brussels sprouts and brassicas off the table, Jordaan anticipates cabbages will be next.

"The shortages create weird knock-on effects on other vegetables," Jordaan says.

"If a giant like KFC is suddenly switching from lettuce to cabbage in their burgers, that means a lot of cabbages are now being funnelled away, creating a vacuum somewhere else."

Bryce Edwards, the executive chef at Fitzroy restaurant Transformer, was forced to source his own cabbages after a supplier came up short last week.

"Three cabbages cost me $17 from the supermarket, and they weren't much larger than a big grapefruit," Edwards says.

"That's when I realised something had started to change."

Edwards is regularly making substitutions on his menus, swapping iceberg for cos lettuce and Asian greens, such as gai lan, for silverbeet and spinach.

The task becomes tougher when it comes to ingredients such as ginger, which recently cost the restaurant $200 for a single box.

"We looked at other ways of achieving that same heat and warmth ginger provides, but ultimately we may have to take that hit," Edwards says.

Price hikes have already started being passed onto customers.

"Every now and then I have a customer say, 'oh, this is far too expensive', but there's nothing I can do about it," Jordaan says.

"I don't think I could ever explain to customers how expensive our produce bills are right now."

Chefs at Israeli restaurant Ezra, in Sydney's Potts Point, have been forced to put availability before seasonality.

"Just because something is in season doesn't mean it's readily available. Whole supply chains have been wiped out," says Ezra co-owner Kirk Mathews Bowden.

"[The scarcity of] dry goods, like nuts, has been huge for us. We've had to start using hazelnuts in our muhammara instead of macadamia nuts, because we just can't justify how much people would have to pay for it."

Also in Potts Point, Small's Deli is taking dill pesto off its sandwiches after the herb jumped in price from $9 to $30 per market bunch. Instead, chef and co-founder Ben Shemesh plans on adding a roasted vegetable sandwich with pumpkin, ricotta and mint pesto to the menu.

"There are a lot of things I can't get, or they've gone so far up in price they're almost not worth using," Shemesh says.

Even with substitutions, the produce bill at Small's Deli has risen by 30 per cent.

"We'll definitely have to raise prices. We can only hold out for so long," Shemesh says.

"Of course it's concerning. No one should have to work for an hour to pay for a coffee and a head of lettuce."

Smith suggests the "harsh reality" of produce shortages could have a silver lining. "I hope it makes the consumer more aware of how natural disasters and climate change affect the availability of food," he says.

"Our food chain is not a wellspring we can just drop into whenever we like and expect it to provide.

"Maybe this is Mother Nature tapping us on the shoulder and saying, 'Yeah, you have to look after me if you want to be able to afford what you want, when you want'."

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan bistro Many Little on the Mornington Peninsula has largely been spared of the iceberg crunch.

Director Emma Phillips says her polytunnels filled with lettuce at the farm-to-table restaurant have been "a lifesaver".

"We have seen some additional benefits of having control of our own supply chain, but running a farm is far from the cheapest or easiest path," Phillips says.

"Every hospitality business has stumbled over some bloody enormous challenges over the last few years, and this is just another unfortunate piece of the puzzle."