(Jan. 20) Do you want tomatoes with that?

Wendy’s International Inc., Dublin, Ohio, posted signs in its restaurants in late December, informing customers that they would have to request tomatoes on their sandwiches.

Wendy’s spokesman Bob Bertini said the chain was trying to conserve tomatoes in response to Florida’s hurricane-damaged crop.

“We certainly have tomatoes if customers want them,” Bertini said. “We use more tomatoes than other restaurant chains because we have them on most of our hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. We use larger-sized tomatoes, and we’ve had trouble getting that size in the quality and quantity we want.”

Wendy’s is the third-largest quick-service hamburger chain in the world with 6,600 locations, according to the company’s Web site. Bertini said the chain used 85 million pounds of tomatoes last year.

Four of Wendy’s five Garden Sensation salads feature tomatoes, but Bertini said the temporary shortage had primarily affected sandwiches. Tomatoes were expected to be standard sandwich ingredients again when Florida’s new crop is harvested, Bertini said.

“I don’t have a time frame,” he said Jan. 18, “but we expect the signs to be removed from stores very soon.”

Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, Maitland, and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said harvest of the crop damaged by Hurricane Wilma in October was expected to wrap up in mid-February, but the crop planted after the hurricane was expected to be available Feb. 1.

Brown said it was impossible to project how much volume the second crop would provide.

Hurricane Wilma damaged 16,000 acres of tomatoes, Brown said. On Jan. 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that Florida tomato shipments were 31.5% behind the same time last year, another storm-ravaged season.

Prices have been high because of limited supplies. The USDA on Jan. 18 reported 25-pound cartons of 85% U.S. No. 1 round mature-greens from Florida were $26.45 for 5x6s, down from $33.45-36.45 a week earlier. Prices for 6x6s ($24.45) and 6x7s ($21.45) also dipped.

Flats of two-layer, vine-ripe tomatoes from Mexico crossing through Nogales, Ariz., were $20.85 for 4x4-4x5s, down $10 from the previous week. Prices for 5x5s ($18.85) and 5x6s ($16.85) also dropped.

Brown hopes Florida can avoid a repeat of the bizarre 2004-05 season. In early December 2004, limited supplies pushed prices to more than $40 for 25-pound cartons. A month later, the USDA reported f.o.b. prices of $5.20-6.20, but Brown said it was closer to $4.

The problem last year was that high prices forced some foodservice operators to stop using tomatoes. Although supplies returned to higher levels — as they are now — retail prices didn’t reflect the trend.

Brown said Wendy’s was the only chain he was aware of that was curbing its tomato use this season and hoped retailers and foodservice operators would realize that supplies would soon be increasing.

“The real danger is for misinformation to continue in the marketplace,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid. That’s why we have grave concern about Wendy’s announcement. We don’t need to continue a psychology of scarcity that’s not real.”