Have you noticed a dozen eggs are really cheap right now? So what's going on?

TAMPA -- Last summer, it was hard to find a carton of a dozen regular eggs for under $3 at the grocery store. To keep breakfast omelettes on the menu and cake displays filled, restaurants resorted to raising prices, adjusting their recipes with egg substitutes or taking a financial loss.

Today, some grocers are selling eggs for as low as 79 cents a dozen. And bakers, diners and pastry makers are returning to normalcy with the real thing -- and saving a bunch of money.

"We lucked out on this one," said Eric Weinstein, whose Tampa restaurant Zudar's cracks open about 2,500 eggs in a typical week. Weinstein said he had to turn to a cheap liquid egg product for some recipes when the prices became too expensive.

Restaurant owners say they can't recall the price of eggs ever drifting so high, then plummeting so low, in such a short period of time.

The cause of the price boom last year was an influenza outbreak at chicken farms across the Midwest, resulting in the deaths of more than 34 million hens, or about 11 percent of the total U.S. commercial crop.

The outbreak came at a time when farmers were spread particularly thin supplying exports to Mexico, which also was recovering from an outbreak, and Canada, whose farmers were unable to keep up with demand.

"Exports were extremely important in the marketplace," said Brian Moscogiuri, an egg market reporter for commodity market news reporting service Urner Barry in New Jersey. "The influenza blew the top off the market."

As farms struggled to rebuild their coops after the outbreak, a shortage emerged and prices skyrocketed. Food manufacturers couldn't get the eggs they needed and either found alternatives or changed their recipes. Mexico and Canadian production started importing from other sources and grew their domestic farms, Moscogiuri explained.

Today, the major commercial farms are nearly back to normal production levels, but egg exports have been slow to recover and the industry lost some of its manufacturing volume during the boom. The extraordinarily low shelf price is driving American consumers to buy more eggs than usual, which has kept the price somewhat stable for the past several months.

"This is probably the biggest issue that they've ever faced," Moscogiuri said. The closest the U.S. egg industry has come to this kind of shakeup was an avian influenza outbreak in the early 1980s, which affected about half the number of birds, he added.

Industry reports suggest that U.S. egg production will keep growing through the end of the year before the market corrects itself and prices start to rise again in 2017.

Meanwhile, egg producers are counting on more expensive options like cage-free, organic and other specialty eggs to make money. The largest U.S. egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods, reported in September that organic, cage-free and other specialty eggs accounted for nearly half of the company's revenue in the most recent financial quarter, up from about 25 percent at that point last year.

Companies like CVS Health, McDonalds, Walmart and others have vowed to stop carrying conventional eggs entirely by 2025.

For now, local restaurateurs are hoping the egg market will be stable, even if that means the price will go back up to the normal price of about $1.20 per dozen in the long-term. But ultimately, eggs are just like any other commodity, said Jeff Mount, owner of Wright's Gourmet House in South Tampa.

"Prices go up and they go down," he said.

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

Roller-coaster ride

National retail prices for a dozen Grade A large eggs in U.S. cities

2013: $1.89

2014: $1.97

2015: $2.96

2016: $1.47

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index, September report

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