Cook slicing bacon
A cook slicing bacon. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Chef Tom Crenshaw has been sneaking through the back door of one of his restaurants, hoping to remain undetected by diners. When delivery trucks don’t show up with his full order, he begrudgingly darts from Commissary DC to the Whole Foods across the street to buy the ingredients he needs to emergently fill out his menu.

“There are days that Whole Foods sees me three or four times a day,” Crenshaw says. He’s the culinary director of all EatWell DC restaurants. “I try to hide the food and go around the corner and in the back door. I feel guilty. I don’t feel like I have the best product when I go shopping like you do at home.” 

The only time chefs should raid the store nicknamed “Whole Paycheck” is before an elimination challenge on Top Chef. “I pay double what I’d pay for an item on the truck,” Crenshaw explains. “You can’t raise the price overnight, so you eat that cost.”

Bars and restaurants are struggling to find or afford the ingredients and products they’re used to securing with relative ease. As a result, chefs, owners, and bar managers are making tough choices like whether to increase prices or strip popular dishes or drinks from menus. They say both remedies can draw ire from diners who sound off on social media even though global and national supply chain issues have been well documented in recent months.

Input from chefs and owners at 30 businesses reveal that almost everything is 20 percent more expensive than before the pandemic, and proteins are at least $2 to $4 more per pound. They cite not being able to reliably get their hands on the following items either because they’re suddenly too pricey or purveyors and distributors can’t stock and deliver them:

Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, tofu, mozzarella sticks, canned pineapple, fryer oil, frozen raspberries, Heinz ketchup, mustard, vegan ice cream, calamari, udon noodles, JUST Egg, flour, specific wines, out-of-market beers, Champagne, sake, Chartreuse, garlic, tilapia, young coconut, egg noodles, abalone, white soy sauce, pork jowl, Chinese ham, dried scallops, Coke, Diet Coke, Mexican Coke, Pellegrino, crab, bread, graham crackers, chestnut flour, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, horseradish, take-out containers, bags, paper products, silverware, cardboard, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, gloves, coolers, HVAC parts, dishwashers, and outdoor furniture.

Take fryer oil. Crenshaw says he’s been paying $50 per 35-pound container lately instead of $20. “All of the sudden that ingredient that didn’t cost anything, you’re paying premium prices for it,” he says. “We use 75 pounds of it every three days, so it adds up quickly. We’ve tried to hold off on changes or price increases because our motto is honest food at an honest price.”

Gloves are among the most difficult products to keep up with at DC Harvest, according to chef and co-owner Arthur Ringel. While all PPE items were costly during the early months of the pandemic, glove prices haven’t come down.

“At a minimum they’re twice as expensive as they were pre-pandemic,” he says. “More and more of us are trying not to use latex because of allergy requests, but eventually that will be all that’s left.” Ringel says his cooks wear gloves for duties beyond what the health department requires. They go through about 400 gloves per day. A case with 1,000 gloves (500 pairs) costs $100.

As diners likely return to ordering pick-up and delivery in droves this winter, Ringel sees takeout containers as “the next massive shortage in the supply chain.” That’s why you can find him perusing party supply stores to get ahead of the curve. “Halloween stores are opening up for the season,” he says. “You have to be very creative on where you’re finding things.” Don’t gasp if your herbed bucatini comes in a bag that says, “Boo!”

Fast-casual restaurants rely on to-go packaging for the bulk of their business, putting them in an even more precarious position. HipCityVeg founder and CEO Nicole Marquis can’t find cups for shakes in the correct sizes. Diners complain they’re being shorted when a kid’s-size shake doesn’t hit the brim of an extra large cup. “Do we lose money and just give them a huge shake?” Marquis wonders. “It’s hurting customer loyalty. They’re getting things packaged in really strange ways and consistency is so important when you have multiple locations.”

Packaging shortages have forced Marquis to compromise on one of her values. “For the first time in more than nine years, we’ve had to use plastic packaging,” she says. “We’ve worked so hard to live up to one of our most important commitments—using 100 percent compostable packaging.”

Fryer oil, gloves, and takeout materials are just three examples of products that restaurants are stressing over. Knowing their industry brethren are stomaching the same problems doesn’t bring much comfort to chefs who find placing orders and anxiously waiting to see what shows up on trucks all consuming. 

Photo of Chef Jeeraporn ”P’Boom” Poksupthong by Darrow Montgomery

“Dealing with shortages and price spikes has become my full-time job,” says Baan Siam executive chef and co-owner Jeeraporn “P’Boom” Poksupthong. “It’s gotten to the point that items on our menu are in constant danger of having to be pulled. We already took off about six dishes.” 

“Most consumers haven’t seen how tight things are,” Poksupthong’s business partner Tom Healy adds. “They usually buy just one of each item at the store. We don’t buy one chicken, we buy 250. If we can’t get them from our supplier because they are short or can’t find a driver, we have to clear out every store from here to Silver Spring.”

2Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria chef and owner Peter Pastan is trying to keep it together. “At this point everyone is so exhausted that we are all pretty numb to this,” he says. “I received a text this morning that the tea we use for ice tea went from $17.36 to $26.68. It’s a weekly, if not a daily, situation. I will probably need to raise our prices soon. It’s just one of the many things I’m in denial about right now. Many companies are having a hard time finding drivers and warehouse workers. You’re either zen about it or your head explodes.”

Bar Charley, Little Coco’s, El Chucho, and Quarry House Tavern are all under Chef Adam Harvey’s purview. “I’ve been in the industry for 23 years and have really never seen anything like this—from a barren beef market to no to-go bags due to a lack of glue required to put the bags together,” he says. “Orders placed for Monday come Tuesday. Order 50 pounds of pork butt and get 10 pounds. As a chef you have to adapt, stay calm, and remember that everyone is trying their best.” 

Price increases, Harvey says, are even more daunting to deal with than scarcities: “Farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers charge the suppliers, suppliers charge the distributors, and distributors charge us. Who do we charge? The guest? When you use 500 pounds of flour a week at a pizza and pasta joint, a 30 percent increase per bag starts to hurt.” 

Restaurants can chart several courses to adapt. Some are positioned to make creative swaps. Ivy and Coney in Shaw couldn’t buy mozzarella sticks so they started serving cheese curds. Fight Club on Capitol Hill switched to duck wings when they couldn’t find chicken wings. They weren’t alone. Even Wingstop launched a cheeky ghost kitchen called Thighstop. The chicken wing supply disruptions hit early, foreshadowing what was to come.

Others shrink portion sizes or remove items from menus. Chef Matt Adler bid his best-selling appetizer adieu at Caruso’s Grocery. “The calamari struggle has been a thing the past couple of months,” he says. His supplier tells him the houses that clean it need workers. Adler isn’t willing to fry up another brand that doesn’t source its squid from domestic waters. “It’s our best selling appetizer, so we can’t have a product on the menu that’s not up to our standards. Reluctantly, we had to pull it from the menu a couple weeks ago.” (Since then it’s made intermittent appearances.)

Photo of cumin pork jowl at Queen’s English by Laura Hayes

At Queen’s English, Chef Henji Cheung wonders if diners have noticed that his Cantonese menu has morphed. “We have a lot of off-cuts and weird cuts, protein wise,” he explains. You can try sweetbreads, tripe, and beef tongue paired with spicy jellyfish. “Less people are trying to buy that stuff. You don’t see tripe on the menu at a lot of D.C. restaurants, so it’s a little more cost effective. There used to be more balance, now it’s leaning much more adventurous.”

Others can’t adjust as easily and face no choice but to bump up prices until they feel they’ve hit customers’ ceiling. Unless they’re vegan, what would a barbecue restaurant be without smoked meat?

“I’d love to take brisket and ribs off the menu, but I can’t,” says Smokecraft Modern Barbecue pitmaster and owner Andrew Darneille. A year ago he was paying $3.83 per pound of USDA prime grade brisket. That price has nearly doubled to $7.38 per pound. St. Louis-style ribs are worse. A year ago he was paying $2.60 per pound. Today they’re $6.75. 

“There’s a price point where these numbers begin to break and people stop buying them,” Darneille says. “We see it every time we make an adjustment to the menu. He’s selling a full rack for $45 when he really needs to be charging closer to $60 to be sustainable. “Each rack of ribs is 3.25 pounds so you’re talking about $22 per rack before I rub it, love it, and smoke it.” 

Even though most pandemic-related restrictions that strangled revenue are lifted, Smokecraft is still losing money every month. “We’re doing everything we can to stay in business, and it’s incredibly deflating and discouraging when you get emails and complaints online about how it’s overpriced,” Darneille says. “We don’t want to charge this much.” When he opened the restaurant in summer 2020, he told his sous chefs: “I’ll never charge $40 for a rack of ribs. That’s ridiculous.”

Restaurants have to pay for way more than ingredients. There’s labor, rent, insurance, equipment, utilities, and fees associated with doing business. Darneille says he paid third-party delivery apps $90,000 in commission fees from January through September of 2021. His restaurant is in Clarendon where legislators didn’t pass an emergency fee cap. He’s concerned supply chain-related price increases will cause people to dine out less.

Not getting equipment, parts, and furniture in a timely fashion is also frustrating. El Techo’s dishwasher broke and they’ve been waiting for a new one since June. The bar has been using disposable products for serving food and drinks. 

“Sustainability is important to us, so we wish we could switch back, but our hands have been tied due to supply chain and delivery issues,” says owner Louie Hankins. “We’ve also gotten some negative reviews online due to our use of disposables, which is disappointing to us because it’s been out of our control, and the customer doesn’t have the full picture.” 

Supply chain disruptions are holding back new restaurant openings in the District. “Equipment delays have been a real issue for the buildout at our upcoming restaurant, Newland,” says restaurateur Andrew Markert.

“What used to be a delivery time of two weeks for most equipment is now 10, 12, or even 16 weeks,” Markert says. And delays have consequences. “A standard part of restaurant leases is some period of rent abatement, but given the supply chain issues and resulting delays, that could mean paying rent before our restaurant is even operating,” he adds. 

Restaurateur Ashish Alfred echoes Markert. When it comes to the Duck Duck Goose bound for Dupont Circle, he says it’s never taken him this long to open a restaurant, and he’s having to make compromises to get across the finish line. “From picking a second or third option for outdoor patio chairs to waiting for a small piece of metal to be made, everything is done with sacrifice and an ultimate test of patience, and it’s more expensive across the board,” he says. 

“When we were opening Quattro [Osteria] over the summer, delivery times got so long that we ended up just driving to New Jersey and Pennsylvania ourselves to pick up tabletops and other items for our buildout,” Hankins says of his other business. “Our opening would have been severely delayed if we waited for regular delivery.”

Just as workers are fleeing the hospitality industry in search of better wages, benefits, and work-life balance, so too are truckers and warehouse staff. The trucking industry was short a record 80,000 drivers as of Oct. 19, and as of July, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the warehouse industry had a record 490,000 job openings. Local businesses are feeling it.

Ice Cream Jubilee had 7,200 pints waiting for pick up to go to the Whole Foods stores, but the distributor didn’t have enough drivers to pick them up so shelves sat empty for four weeks. “Not only are we losing customers when shoppers can’t buy our ice cream flavors, but as the store tracks demand and sales velocity, they will show zero sales for Ice Cream Jubilee,” says owner Victoria Lai. “Which could jeopardize our opportunities for business to grow into new stores and markets.”

Ice Cream Jubilee’s distributor didn’t respond to requests for an interview about the issues they’re facing, nor did three other distributors who serve the D.C. market. Christine DiBenigno, president of International Gourmet Foods, did. The Northern Virginia-based company largely serves small, independent restaurants. She says in her 20 years in the distribution business she’s never seen such widespread issues. Usually it’s one product here and there that’s hard to get because of unpredictable events like a bad harvest.

DiBenigno and others make the case that a sudden increase in demand in April and May 2021 overloaded the supply chain and caused congestion at ports. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for how quickly people wanted to go out,” she says. “Drops happen, but it’s usually a more gradual increase.” 

She can’t predict an end to supply chain struggles and inflation because “so much hinges on what we can do at ports.” When business owners like restaurateur John Andrade of Smoke & Barrel and Brookland  Pint prod their suppliers, they hear it could last well into 2022, and news reports back that up

DiBenigno’s strategy has been giving restaurants as many options as possible. “If I don’t have canola oil, I have a blended sunflower oil I recommend,” she says. She hopes diners can be just as flexible. “Customers are getting angry and not realizing that nobody wants to be out of product, nobody wants to not serve you or be in this industry where we love food.”

Restaurant owners and workers are also pleading for patience. Some feel that people are more forgiving when retailers like grocery shops and liquor stores are out of an item than when they sit down to dine. Commercials are even alluding to the fact that the pandemic has forced everyone to become more adaptable. AT&T is running one where someone comes home with an iguana on a leash because they were out of dogs.

“Be flexible with us and understand that just like in the grocery store, if your favorite brand isn’t available, be open to trying something new,” Ringel from DC Harvest says. “If you are going to throw in the towel and say it has to be a specific item, you’re going to be shit out of luck of enjoying something new and probably put a lot of businesses out of business. We’re doing our best, but we’re also trying to be creative to keep our businesses afloat. If you’ve trusted us in the past, trust that what we’re offering now is going to be just as good if not better than before.”