WICKER PARK — Mexico's lime shortage has touched restaurants, grocery stores and tequila devotees across the U.S., but it's really hit home at neighborhood staple Big Star, which recently decided to increase prices for lime cocktails rather than change the recipe.
"It's been very difficult," Big Star sous chef Joey Hejtmanek said. "Because we don't want to compromise."
Prices for the fruit have soared in recent months due to the crisis, which reportedly arose out of a combination of heavy rains, a citrus disease and extortion of lime producers by Mexican drug cartels.
A 40-pound carton that cost about $25 last summer now costs more than $100. At Big Star, Hejtmanek said they've been paying an average of $125 for a carton of limes.
In March, Time Out Chicago reported that Big Star, 1531 N. Damen Ave., stopped automatically serving limes with tacos and Tecate due to the fruit's scarcity.
Emily Morris joined DNAinfo Radio to discuss how the "2014 Lime Crisis" is affecting Wicker Park businesses:
About two weeks ago, Big Star raised the price per glass of lime-based alcoholic drinks by $1, bringing a glass from $8 to $9, while a pitcher is now $7 more, from $33 to $40, Hejtmanek said. That's affected the margaritas as well as other drinks using lime, such as the La Paloma and the Five and Dimer.
Hejtmanek said they've experimented with tweaking the fresh-squeezed cocktail recipes by using pasteurized lime juice, but "it's just not the same."
Big Star did end up changing its nonalcoholic limeade recipe to include pasteurized lime juice instead of fresh-squeezed, which is why the price hasn't changed. Hejtmanek said with all the sugar, the ingredient switch doesn't have a big effect on taste.
Food prices have remained the same, but the restaurant is still not giving out limes unless customers ask for them.
At Antique Taco, 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave., manager Madeleine Suter said they've also stopped serving limes with meals unless people request them, and it's actually managed to save them two to three cases of limes a week.
"It's such a little thing that saved us so much time and money," Suter said.
Suter said they haven't increased prices or changed the recipes for drinks (they, too, use fresh-squeezed lime juice). Suter said with margarita prices already at $12 for a pint and $23 a quart, they likely couldn't afford to raise the price.
"We kind of have to take the beating," Suter said.
At Flash Taco, 1570 N. Damen Ave., there isn't even a guarantee that customers will get wedges of limes if they ask, manager Liliana Salamanca said.
When they do have limes, customers who request them are charged about 35 cents per lime, Salamanca said.
"It's funny because most people already know," Salamanca said of customer reaction. "We've had people ask us, 'Do you have limes?' because a lot of places don't."
According to USA Today, the harvest in May could potentially provide some relief.
"We look forward to lowering prices back down as soon as the price and availability of limes allows," Big Star spokeswoman Jenna Liberman said.
Until then, customers will have to ante up. But Hejtmanek said there hasn't been a backlash thus far.
Big Star customer Tyra Fiskett, who was sipping a Michelada Wednesday afternoon during a visit from Minneapolis, said she's noticed pricier limes at the grocery store and has even been served lemons instead of limes with drinks at other restaurants.
As for the increase in cocktail prices, Fiskett said it's worth it.
"If I'm going to drink booze somewhere, I'm willing to pay the price," Fiskett, 29, said.