Some basics still in short supply
All restaurants have made adjustments to do business in the COVID era, moving tables apart and sanitizing bottles of ketchup. But some have had to change their menu because they can’t get basic ingredients.
For some restaurants, ingredient shortages mean small tweaks, like substituting a different cut of meat. For others, it’s made it impossible to do any business at all.
After months of closure, Vickie Malone would love to at least offer take-out at Oliver’s Artisan Kitchen in Winthrop. With just a handful of tables in an intimate setting, the restaurant is too small to meet physical-distancing requirements for dine-in service. But Malone, who prides herself on home-made dishes, still can’t find essential ingredients.
“I’ve had trouble getting supplies — I can get things one week, but not the other,” said Malone, who wants a reliable supply before she re-opens. “Yeast has been the biggest challenge.”
Malone bakes all her bread from scratch. Finding yeast without preservatives is even harder and has become “outrageously expensive,” she said. She’s squirreled away a tiny bit to bake bread for her family and to feed her precious sourdough starter.
Malone typically goes through 25 pounds of flour a week, but many stores still restrict purchases to 5 pounds. Specialty cheese and other dairy products are becoming more reliable and, with the growing season in full swing, Malone can get local produce.
While Malone hasn’t had trouble sourcing meat, other restaurants in town are grappling with meat shortages.
Since Three-Fingered Jack’s Saloon in Winthrop opened early this month, the restaurant has experienced shortages of beef, pork, and dairy, although things are slowly returning to normal, owner Seth Miles said.
“Currently, pork products, beer, and salad dressings are short, but I imagine next week will be something different,” he said. “So far, it has not had a huge impact. I’m able to adjust my menu or just claim an outage until the next order day.”
Carlos J. Pérez is waiting to open Carlos1800 Mexican Grill & Cantina until he can devise a system to keep staff and diners safe, but he also has to re-think the menu. When restaurants shut down, a lot of food in coolers had to be thrown out. Then the supply chain — for things like steak, chicken, and fish — was disrupted, he said.
Distributors used to deliver twice a week, but now it’s less frequent. There are hiccups at the supply end, and there aren’t as many delivery drivers. “It’s a domino effect,” Pérez said.
Large food-service distributors like Sysco and Food Services of America are still trying to catch up after liquidating their inventories, since they didn’t know when restaurants would reopen, said Jackson Konrad, meat manager at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp.
Before re-opening for dine-in service two weeks ago, Arrowleaf Bistro in Winthrop offered take-out on weekends. They were grateful to have that option, compared to other industries that had to shut down completely, said Joanne Uehara, who co-owns the restaurant with Jon Brown.
But the owners had to figure out how to adapt their artistic food presentation so it would survive the trip home. “Jon tried for a beautiful display, but different things are more durable for a 20-minute drive,” Uehara said. “Our background is in high-end service and fine dining. To do high-end take-out, we had to make up our own rules.”
Arrowleaf always has some trouble getting ingredients, since what the restaurant uses is often unavailable from major distributors. The restaurant relies on a lot of local meats and other ingredients, which proved key to being able to offer take-out service.
The restaurant bought two cows at the beginning of March. At first, Uehara and Brown wondered what they’d do with 1,200 pounds of beef. “But it turned out good — we had a freezer full of beef,” Uehara said.
Because the restaurant only offered take-out two days a week, they weren’t going through staples as quickly, which was handy, since things like sugar were hard to find, she said.
“We created our own shortage,” with panic buying of anything shelf-stable, like flour, yeast, and powdered milk, Konrad at Hank’s Harvest Foods said. Suppliers have only started catching up in the past few weeks, he said.
At the Methow Valley Thriftway in Winthrop, the biggest problem is stocking the brands people expect. Certain brands of flour or beans still aren’t available, store manager Bart Northcott said. Canned goods, peanut butter, pasta, and Rice-A-Roni are also scarce. “Variety is still the issue. You can always get black beans, but not specific brands,” he said.
“It’s sporadic. I get something one day, but the next five times, it’s not available,” Northcott said.
Although Thriftway never ran out of chocolate chips, when school closed, the store sold more chips in three months than it typically does in years, Northcott said.
When the economy ground to a halt, many companies stopped producing some products so they could keep up with fast-selling items. “There are still a few companies that are not producing as many slower movers like bologna, hot dogs, and sausage,” Konrad said, although things have improved.
Early in the closure, distributors had millions of pounds of fresh products with nowhere to go. Anticipating meat shortages, Hank’s bought two truckloads of beef, Konrad said.
Part of what contributed to local shortages is that many workers at the meat-processing plant in Toppenish were concerned about health risks and afraid to go to work, Konrad said. Meat plants were paying bonuses to encourage people to work, he said.
Northcott has had no problems getting meat and fish, although there was a spike in price, which he attributed to collusion among meat processors. “There was some ridiculous pricing,” Konrad said. Beef and pork are finally coming down in price, he said.
With restaurants closed, there was a lot of fish available, although less processing of fish. Specialties like Dungeness crab were rare, because fewer people were harvesting them, Konrad said.
People don’t always understand why certain products aren’t available, Northcott said. “If I could, I’d have it in my store,” he said.
“As Jon said, ‘It will be really interesting, in a decade or two, to get the historic perspective on this,” Uehara said.