Where Did All Our Strawberries Go?

 

For the time being, our menus will not include strawberries.

 

As it goes with any business, the costs of doing business are constantly in flux. Prices go up, prices go down. When it comes to food, price fluctuations can be surprisingly large. That’s why, for example, most places have an “MP” next to their Lobster Roll on the menu. While many of us have come to expect the cost of lobster to change significantly from day to day, similar price fluctuations can happen with every single item, every single day. Since it’s become increasingly easier and more efficient to move raw ingredients from coast to coast, many consumers will never even be aware that seasonality and availability will shift the cost of a bag of lettuce, box of oranges or flat of berries from week to week.

 

For the past several winters, we have had to make a tough choice as it pertains to one of our most popular ingredients: the strawberry. Every year around November, the strawberry crops in Florida and California start to freeze, the supply of berries drops, the quality plummets and the price spikes outrageously.

 

Up until this year, we’ve tried to find ways to make it all work. We made a modest price increase on our strawberry items year-round in order to continue to provide them at a reasonable margin in the winter. We’ve explored using different local and national distributors. Last year, we even tried to anticipate this annual situation by purchasing as many local strawberries as we could in their short Vermont growing season, processing them into a compote and freezing the compote for this winter spike. We thought the increased locality of the product would win our customers over – unfortunately, the compote was not what our Lovemaker and Strawberry Shortcrepe faithful were expecting or hoping for.

 

So last week, we had to take a hard look at some serious numbers. 35,749. That’s roughly the number of crepes with strawberries we’ve sold at our brick and mortar locations year to date. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly double the number of Veggie Monsters, our most popular savory crepe, that we sell in an entire year. Wow, we thought, we sell a hell of a lot of strawberries. Meanwhile, the price of strawberries nearly doubled, literally overnight. While we internally deal with the realities of a global food system every day, most of the people that come visit us looking for a crepe probably don’t – so a $20 Lovemaker for the winter months probably wouldn’t be welcome or make much sense to our strawberry loving friends.

 

And then there’s the other bottom line. While people love strawberries, our earth probably doesn’t. Strawberries annually top the list of the Environmental Watch Fund’s Dirty Dozen – that is to say industrial strawberry cultivation requires the most pesticide treatment of any fruits or vegetables on the market. Sadly, organic strawberries are not entirely immune to pesticide treatment either. Outside of Vermont’s short 4-6 week strawberry growing season, the rest of the year our berries come from monoculture farms in warm weather states, leading to increased carbon emissions associated with transporting product from there to here. While we are deeply committed to sourcing locally, we are also committed to ensuring our food is accessible to folks who are not as obsessed with local food as we are…so we keep ‘gateway foods’ like strawberries and chocolate hazelnut spread in stock all year round. Until now…

 

Rather than substitute a compote that doesn’t meet everyone’s standards for yum or sell fresh strawberries that do not meet our expectations for environmental, price, or quality standards, we’re pulling them off the menu for now. Yep, that’s right…for the time being, strawberries have been dropped from all our menus. No more Lovemakers, Heartbreakers or Strawberry ShortCrepes. Strawberries will likely find their way back onto our menus once the price and quality of the berry stabilizes, but like we did last year with Nutella, we recognize that we need to find a long-term solution to our less than healthy year-round addiction.

 

How do you break such a popular (and revenue generating) addiction? For starters, we’ve tried our best to reduce our use of strawberries in weekly specials. Also, for the first time this summer and fall, we began to drop Lovemakers and Heartbreakers at mobile vending events in favor of more sustainable and locally available fruits like apples and blueberries.

 

Even more boldly, our Skinny Pancakes in Stowe and Sugarbush will be strawberry free when they open this winter. When you consider the 1,200 Lovemakers we sold in Stowe alone last winter, this was not a decision we made lightly. But, when considering the food system as a whole, the strawberry just isn’t something that should be widely available throughout a Northern Vermont winter, and we decided our menus at ski resorts should paint a more accurate reality.

 

We hope that one day there’s a solution to our seasonal strawberry conundrum that doesn’t disappoint the strawberry lovers of Pancakia, and we’re hopeful that there is. Our ultimate goal is to effectively bridge the gap between consumer’s wishes and the realities of our seasonal food system.  Last year, we were amazed to see how some of our local growers were able to extend the season. We also hold out hope that the local compote we keep stocked in the freezer will become more acceptable on our menus long term. Our northern neighbors in Quebec have been building up their organic strawberry crops, which is a great option during their growing season, and through greenhouses and indoor hydroponics, may one day be able to provide us a reasonably priced organic berry in the winter. But none of these solutions solve the strawberry problem we face today.

 

So, for now, we’ll be eating blueberries. Please, join us.