Shortages of Potatoes, Onions Send Industry Scrambling

Bad potato and onion crops, coupled with cost and availability issues, may have consumers hearing, “You want zucchini sticks with that burger?”

Portillo’s CEO Michael Osanloo said supplies of onion rings and French fries have “turned into a real “nightmare” this year, telling Bloomberg recently that the problems are industrywide. And he’s even more nervous about onion rings since “[t]here’s a certain type of onion that makes onion rings really good and apparently 2022 was a really bad year for these crops.”

National Onion Association data show the 2022-23 crop was 5% below the 2021-22 level. U.S. farmers plant about 125,000 acres of onions annually, yielding about 6.75 billion pounds.

Onion Business quoted producers in Washington, Idaho and Oregon as saying demand is strong, but in terms of shortages, a lot will depend on the crops in Mexico and Texas. California is the biggest U.S. onion producer.

Shipments from Mexico are off to a slow start this year, Mike Davis of Tex-Mex Sales LLC in Weslaco, Texas, told Onion Business, adding, “I don’t see any real supplies coming across until the first of February.”

The U.S. potato harvest totaled 397 million cwt, down 3% from 2021.

“The wet and cold conditions that directly impacted the potato crops, leaving them with frost over the winter have forced farmers to leave their crops rather than suffer bigger losses trying to save it,” chef/bartender Jodi Pemberton, founder of Eat Pallet, told The Food Institute.

Andrew Lokenauth, a professor at University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a food service/restaurant analyst, said restaurants may have to look for alternatives, raise prices, reduce portion sizes, eliminate items or a combination of all of the above.

“Some possible options include offering other types of fries made from alternative vegetables such as sweet potatoes or yucca, or offering alternative side dishes such as fried zucchini sticks or other veggies,” Lokenauth said.

He said it’s possible the shortage could last as long as a year and force some restaurants to look for alternatives suppliers or import potatoes and onions from other countries.

“This could mean that the prices of these items may increase, which might affect the profit margin of the restaurants,” Lokenauth said.

Pemberton said restaurants will need to go to smaller potatoes to give farmers time to stabilize the industry.

“As to the supply and demand, this will force farmers to increase potato prices, but this does not eradicate nor affect the French fry demand. In fact, the significant decrease in stocks has even surged the demand,” Pemberton noted.

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