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Disruption within the meat industry has been building for weeks as COVID-19 affects multiple points of the national supply chain. Ranchers and meat processing workers are falling ill with the virus, processing facilities are operating at sharply reduced levels, and the number of trucks that normally transport meat from farm to factory to stores has decreased. With the country’s supply chain faltering, D.C.-area residents are seeing less meat options at grocery stores—and chefs are battling with sharp increases in food costs.
When restaurants first closed down to dine-in service in mid-March, Chef Alex McCoy decided to continue operating his Adams Morgan burger joint, Lucky Buns, for take-out. At the time, he was buying ground beef for roughly $3.20 per pound. That price increased to $5.74 per pound by May 8.
“There’s going to be a point where the meat purveyors are going to realize that too much is too much and they’ll end up losing money if they continue to raise prices,” McCoy says. “I don’t know if it’s going to go much higher, but I don’t think it can.”
McCoy has raised his prices by $1 so far and is hoping not to have to do it again. He’s weighing his options. “I can only raise my prices so much before it gets ridiculous,” he says. “I’d have to pivot to something like chicken sandwiches or Impossible meats.”
While there are still suppliers offering commodity ground beef for less than what he’s paying, McCoy is adamant about not compromising on quality. Grateful for good relationships with his purveyors, McCoy’s biggest saving grace is the ability to custom-order the ground beef blend he uses for patties, blending percentages of cost-effective cuts with higher-priced cuts. “We have the ability to collaborate to come up with custom blends and make it more affordable,” he says.
Bub & Pop’s Chef Jonathan Taub saw an even steeper increase over the same time period as McCoy from $3.25 per pound of beef to $7.50. This leap in price is difficult for chefs to cover and even harder to pass on to customers. “I can’t charge $38 for a whole cheesesteak,” he says. “Nobody is going to buy that. People already complain because we charge $18.”
Taub predicts that popular cuts of meat will not only be cost-prohibitive, but also potentially unavailable in the market thanks to major delays within the supply chain. “The local farm is double the price of what a commodity would be,” he says.
If the current trend continues, Taub will not be replenishing his supply of staples like corned beef and brisket. He’s ready to get creative with other cuts of meat and utilize more vegetables. At the moment, the menu already has three vegetable sandwich offerings—eggplant parmesan, South Philly ratatouille, and a four cheese hoagie—along with salads and soups.
Relying on vegetables alone to save the menu comes with uncertainty. “[Farmers] don’t know what to grow, they don’t know what to harvest, because if people aren’t buying they’re not going to harvest product and waste it,” Taub says.
The mentality of doing what must be done to stay afloat has already tested hundreds of restaurants in the area. Now, they’re being challenged yet again.
“We have to listen to what’s going on around us and be the innovators,” saysMaydan Executive Chef Marcelle Afram. “[Adaptation has] always been the way of humanity. It’s why people threw milk in a stomach lining and turned it into cheese. We have to just adapt.”
Afram’s main focus is on making sure the food Maydan sells to-go is priced at a margin that enables the restaurant to pay its staff. Working with local farms, Afram’s team has direct access to a supply of meat, and they can adjust their menu based on what’s available.
“Obviously there is a shortage,” she says. “When we have commodity tanks shutting their doors, it puts a lot more pressure on local producers but, in a weird way, it’s where all that local focus should have been in the first place.”
Direct relationships with local farms and co-ops is proving to be the difference between those who are worried and those who feel more prepared. Donna Welch of Alexandria butchery Let’s Meat on the Avenue is confident that her customers will not see a shortage in products or have to pay exorbitant prices.
“We are different from the Tysons and the Smithfields, the big commodity groups that are being shut down,” she says. “We are more local. We deal with individual farmers and co-ops, so it has not hit, yet but we have had warnings from one of the directors at one of the co-ops that we will probably see a little bit of a roller coaster in prices.”
Welch says she doesn’t intend to pass price increases along to customers unless the fluctuations become drastic. She also plans to continue providing a variety of products like wild boar, venison, bison, and fish as alternatives to more popular meats that might become more expensive. The butchery has kept up with a steady increase in orders during the pandemic in a way that makes them reliably stable to customers.
Pam Ginsberg of Wagshal’s in Spring Valley expressed similar sentiments. Both women have seen strong sales as their regular customers are cooking more at home and new customers are turning to their reliable source of supply. Ginsberg, who is known locally as “Pam the Butcher” worked almost 90 hours over six days last week trying to keep up with rising consumer demand. “We do what we do,” Ginsberg says. “It’s not our job, it’s our lives.”
This determination to keep pushing goes beyond creatively introducing customers to new items. It’s an instinct to survive at all costs.
“What if it got so bad that the only thing I could get is just flour and eggs and we just had to serve pancakes all day?” Taub asks. “I have no idea, but I know this: I have good training. I’m creative. So, if shit really hits the fan, I guess we’ll do whatever we have to do.”