Cardboard shortages, backlogged ports, skyrocketing food prices — all of these factors and more have compounded at every stage of distribution to create one of the most widespread global supply chain disruptions in modern history.
These pandemic-caused woes impact businesses and consumers alike, but restaurants — an industry that's taken punch after punch the past two years — are once again dealing with major challenges.
Not being able to reliably source essential ingredients and supplies has gotten so bad for one local restaurant, MadLo's Ramen House in Nine Mile Falls, that its owners decided to temporarily close last week.
"We run out of things very frequently, and we're last on the chain as far as who gets what when we place our orders [from suppliers]," says Megan Corns, who owns MadLo's with husband Jeremy.
"We ran out of fresh, never-dried ramen noodles, and had to switch to an udon noodle," she continues, "which made our community upset, but we couldn't do anything about it."
Eggrolls, chicken, bao buns, to-go containers and numerous other supplies have been nearly impossible to find from the restaurant's regular suppliers, so the Corns have instead spent hours each week driving around to restaurant supply outlets to try to find what they can't get delivered.
"That takes up most of our time, hunting for to-go containers, boba straws, cups, chopsticks and the sauces we buy," Corns says.
She doesn't know how long MadLo's will be closed but says it'll likely last until supply issues improve.
For other local food purveyors, these sourcing woes haven't been as hard hitting, but the increased cost of goods has been universally felt.
At Breaüxdoo Bakery in Spokane Valley, owner Gage Lang says getting packaging the bakery needs to sell its cookies and cake slices via delivery and wholesale to grocers like My Fresh Basket has been difficult, due to higher prices and scarcity.
"We order our cake-slice containers from New Jersey, and typically it's a two-week lead time, but now it's a month and a half," Lang says. "We have to order them in bulk now, but with raised prices and that longer lead. Last week, we couldn't get pizza boxes anywhere, and I drove to six stores."
Lang says a typical weekly order of ingredients and supplies for the bakery was once in the $1,400 to $1,600 range.
"Yesterday's was $2,400, so it's crazy, and they're projecting the next few months to be even worse," he says.
Even though his business's costs have nearly doubled, Lang hasn't yet passed those increases on to customers.
"There is zero percent profit — no money at all — and that is just to stay open and pay every supplier," he says. "I don't want to sell a cookie for $4, but we're left with no choice if we want to remain in business. This is just to stay afloat, it's not like someone is laughing their way to the bank."
At Hogwash Whiskey Den in downtown Spokane, Executive Chef CJ Callahan says the first big cost increase due to the pandemic was for gloves, which went from roughly 8 cents per glove to 50 cents at peak. Then garbage bags went up. Next was fry oil, going from $20 per 35-pound unit to $49. Short ribs went from $6 to $13 per pound.
"Dealing with people to try to explain why they have to pay an extra $1.50 for chicken wings — it's not fun," Callahan says. "Very few people give us trouble, but sometimes you get that one guy who's like 'I don't want to pay this, it's bullshit,' but it's not our fault, it's just how we operate and have to do so to stay open."
To balance exponential cost increases for some items, like the aforementioned chicken wings and short ribs, Callahan's tried to spread price hikes across the bar's entire menu.
"We do just eat the cost every so often, but we'll also increase the price of something that happens to be lower to balance it out, because you want people to come out still, but also don't want to gouge them."
Higher costs and scarcity has also forced Callahan and his team to get more creative with what they're serving.
"For the short ribs, I pulled the meat and put it in empanadas to spread out the cost," he says. "So for stuff like that, you look on the bright side."
Restaurants have also been teaming up to help each other find hard-to-get ingredients. Callahan recently needed fancy anchovies for a Caesar salad-inspired hamburger special at Hogwash, but the bar's supplier couldn't get them. Instead, he asked fellow chef Peter Froese of Gander & Ryegrass to order the anchovies, which Hogwash bought from Froese at cost.
Froese, meanwhile, says his restaurant's regularly rotating menu format has somewhat eased the stress of not being able to consistently find certain ingredients.
"There's not anything major we've had to take off the menu," Froese says. "There are hard-to-get things, but you can eventually get them. You have to shuffle and stay on your toes."
Some imported wines and specialty spirits from Europe, however, have been entirely unavailable.
"We've been dealing with that for a long time now," he says. "If you get three cases and can keep it on the menu, that's great, and if you can order more, that's better, but you don't get stuck on certain things."
One rung on the supply chain above restaurants, local food service companies are trying to ease shortages for their clients as much as possible.
For URM of Spokane, that's meant encouraging its customers to also source from its two major competitors, US Foods and Sysco.
"Whereas we used to be able to service 100 percent of customers' needs and be their only broadline distributor for the most part, that is now challenged," says Paul Steele, director of food service for URM. "We understand customers need to do what they need to do."
The reason for such severe shortages in food-based supplies, Steele says, boils down to labor.
"For most of the processors, it was COVID-related to begin with, and now it's a labor situation," he says. "They just can't get labor, or they have people six feet apart on a production line that used to be shoulder to shoulder. And the transportation costs have increased two- to three-fold to get a load up here from California to Spokane."
Those transportation setbacks have also impacted Charlie's Produce, which services all of the West Coast, including Spokane.
"Produce is a little different than other suppliers, because we're dealing with something that dies from the second it's harvested, so the turnaround time has to be quick," says Bo Bos, food service manager for Charlie's Spokane warehouse.
While logistics have challenged the produce supplier, Bos says slowdowns for nonperishable and frozen items has also led to more fresh produce orders from some customers.
"I think just being able to have product, where a lot of [suppliers] are struggling and can't get certain things because a truck is full — we don't have to prioritize like that," he says. "We might pick up at two to three locations, but it's all on the same truck." ♦