This month, many of California's most popular chain restaurants are facing an unprecedented shortage of a beloved tiny, bright yellow pickled pepper.
The sudden scarcity of cascabella peppers has customers complaining, restaurants scrambling for alternatives, and suppliers' business suffering. All are waiting for a healthy new crop to arrive and normalize the shortage, which started taking hold as far back as November.
A reported combination of bad weather, disease, and poor soil conditions reduced the overall cascabella supply as much as 60 percent this year, making the shortage the greatest in industry history. The list of restaurants currently running low or completely out of the chilies includes In-N-Out Burger, Carl's Jr., and Zankou Chicken.
"Clients are very, very unhappy," said Dottie Munoz, of A-1 Eastern, an LA cascabella supplier.
Munoz estimated A-1 is meeting just 50 percent of client demand for cascabellas, which account for nearly half the company's business. A broker representing cascabella farmers has hiked the price of the chilies by a factor of two, she said. This week, supplies were totally depleted.
"It's been a very big struggle for us."
Robert Walker, owner of El Pato, which sends cascabellas to Carl's Jr., said his company was able to meet its clients' needs, but its supply is "greatly reduced"—and closely guarded from other restaurants desperately seeking a solution to the shortage.
"We get a call from somebody who said, 'We know you have chile,'" Walker said, "and the answer is, 'Get in line.'"
Cascabellas look like jalapeños but are smaller, tighter, and have a bright yellow color, like a reflective roadside construction jacket. Picked by hand, the peppers are brined in salt and water for a period of weeks and then finished with vinegar and yellow food dye. Tart, crisp, and scoring between 1,500 and 4,000 on the Scoville scale, cascabellas are often misidentified as banana peppers, pepperoncini, or Hungarian wax peppers.
"There's a lot of confusion about this pepper," said Chris Snider of Tito's Texas, which supplied cascabellas to In-N-Out during its expansion into Texas.
The USDA does not keep data on cascabella production, but it's clear the love affair with the chile is a story based in the Golden State.
Cascabellas came into vogue relatively recently here, in the last 15 to 20 years, when the bulk of the labor-intensive crop production moved from the US to northern Mexico. Restaurants started offering the chilies as a free condiment off the menu, with demand increasing over time. Along with larger regional chains like In-N-Out, Carl's Jr., and Zankou Chicken, local LA eateries like Tommy's, Carney's, and The Oinkster picked up on the trend, adding a small container of cascabellas to ketchup stations or including two or three in a soufflé cup along with every order.
For many Californians, a cascabella or two on the side is now synonymous with the experience of eating their favorite meal.
"If they don't get a chile with their hamburger, they don't want their hamburger," Munoz said.
Some restaurants have offered cascabella alternatives during the shortage, with little reported success. When his distributor ran out, Chris Stewart, general manager of the third-wave burger shack Burgerlords in LA's Chinatown, said he tried substituting sliced pepperoncinis, which the clientele roundly rejected.
"They looked at me like I was offering rat poison," Stewart said.
The shortage has even affected In-N-Out and its famous secret menu. The company circulated a memo to its California stores instructing employees to pull cascabellas from ketchup stations and provide just "one soufflé cup (2 whole chilies) per request," while supplies last.
"Should your store be completely out of whole chilies please apologize to our customer and let them know that due to an industry wide shortage we are unable to provide chilies on the side at this time," according to the memo.
Customers have reported many In-N-Out locations are completely out of cascabellas. An employee at an In-N-Out in Studio City said her location was receiving just four gallons of peppers every two days, often running out before the end of the second day, when the complaints start to roll in.
"People go crazy for those peppers," she said.
Some cascabellas at In-N-Out in recent weeks have had a dark orange or red color, signs of a stressed chile plant, or oxidation, possibly indicating a rushed preserving process or the use of "overripe" chilies that otherwise would be discarded during harvest. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one industry insider called In-N-Out "desperate" for cascabellas and guessed the scant bright yellow peppers still available in stores might be sourced from expensive retail bottles.
"We hope to have this resolved soon," an In-N-Out vice president said. "We are also searching for a suitable alternative."
The next cascabella harvest is reportedly underway. Farms planted more cascabellas than usual this year in hopes of making up for the scarcity. With time for harvesting, preserving, and shipping, observers believe the shortage could start to normalize as soon as some time in July.
Until then, suppliers and restaurants will continue to look for ways to make up for the unprecedented shortage.
"We're taking whatever we can get," Munoz said.