RED HOOK — A nationwide surge in the price of limes has squeezed one of Brooklyn’s most famous pie shops that relies on the tart fruit.
Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies recently had to raise the cost of its pies by about 9 percent to combat a lime shortage that’s caused an increase in wholesale costs and a reduction in quality, owner Steve Tarpin said.
His 10-inch key lime dessert is now priced at $30, the 8-inch pie sells for $20 and the 4-inch tart is $5.
About a month ago, Tarpin’s usual 2,000-pound shipment of key limes or "Citrus aurantifolia Swingle" turned into a paltry 500-pound delivery at nearly three times the previous price, he said.
“They were horrendous,” he said. “They were the size of grapes.”
In the country’s northeast region, 229 grocery stores were charging a weighted average price of 53 cents per lime as of March 21, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the same time and area last year, the cost per lime was 18 cents in 161 stores.
Nationwide, USDA statistics show the average cost for a key lime is 53 cents, compared to 21 cents last year.
Along with increasing pie prices to battle soaring costs, Steve’s will stop selling its fresh cold limeade, a popular drink for customers on a recent Sunday morning.
Tarpin and his wife, Victoria, will also ask their commercial customers — restaurants and food markets — to be more specific in their orders to prevent waste.
The shortage of limes in Mexico, which provides about 95 percent of the United States’ supply, has significantly increased the cost of the fruit and affected cocktail bars and margarita joints throughout the country.
The sour issue has been blamed on a perfect storm of poor weather conditions, complications with Mexican drug cartels and a bacterial disease called “huanglongbing” that kills citrus trees, the New York Times reported.
Steve’s shipment of limes comes from Veracruz in Mexico and goes through a distributor in Texas before reaching Red Hook. While they only received about a quarter of their usual shipment last month, the Tarpins have several reserve cartons of frozen lime juice, which should last them a few weeks until the next batch of fruit arrives.
In search of a better price and fruit quality, the Tarpins are considering importing the fruit from South America or even growing their own key lime trees in a greenhouse above the famous pie shop.
“There’s just so many things to consider,” said Tarpin, who is exploring whether they have enough growing space or if an appropriate climate can be recreated in Red Hook.
“In a perfect world, we could pull that off.”
Tarpin said he’s unsure when prices will fall again, but said he believes this is a “manufactured crisis” and that rates will eventually drop. Still, he said he believes that price will be higher than the previous average.
In the meantime, Tarpin is doing what he can to save money to ease the burden on the city’s pie lovers.
“It’s a duty to our customers as well. We don’t want to increase our prices,” he said.
When asked if he'd consider using a bottled lime juice to make his famous pies, Tarpin said "No" and pointed to an “Always Fresh Squeezed” sign that hangs behind the counter of his waterfront shop.
“Otherwise we’d have to change the sign to 'Occasionally Fresh Squeezed,'” he said.