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Local Restaurants Adjust To Food Supply Chain Changes

As the novel coronavirus has raged across the globe, the resulting fallout has emerged in predictable and unpredictable ways. States across the nation issued stay-at-home orders while restaurants closed their doors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The economic impact of those closings is not surprising, but as eateries work to reopen and return to normal, some are experiencing odd hurdles and setbacks.

“Condiments! Can you believe it?!?!” exclaimed Andi Johnson, owner of Flip Burgers and Treats. She and her husband Jeff Johnson talked to the Courier about some of the difficulties they have experienced as the food supply chain suffered shock after shock as a result of the pandemic.

Hope Jones, who owns Soma dis Deli, said that while her sandwich shop was just in the process of fully reopening again, she encountered problems keeping bread dough in stock. “Yeah, bread dough,” she said. “I don’t know why. The supplier is out of North Dakota somewhere. Guess it is just a supply chain thing.”

Sam Knodel, co-owner of Eugene’s Pizza, said he had been keeping an eye on the supply chain issue from the beginning. “When lettuce went away,” he said, “I knew it was gonna get rough.” Though far removed from the rest of the country, restaurants in Glasgow have seen the trends in food shortages impact their business here. Knodel stated he had noticed the availability of pepperoni and Canadian bacon fluctuate as the pork processing industry was hit by the virus.

One of the first public signs of the local restaurants feeling the impacts of food supply chain issues in Glasgow was when Flip Burgers and Treats announced on Facebook last month that they were temporarily raising the price of their burgers by 35 cents.

While some supply shortages are understandable -- the price and availability of meat has changed drastically in recent weeks as meat processing plants grapple with sick and absent workers -- others like the condiment shortage was somewhat more inexplicable. Andi Johnson mused that it may have been the result of so many restaurants converting to “to-go” operations only while Jeff Johnson said that some manufacturing plants had converted to producing hand sanitizer and other necessary items.

The condiment issue was a minor one for the Johnsons, but demonstrative of how even local mom-and-pop shops are tied to the larger distribution network. While living in the middle of nowhere has many benefits, being able to shop locally for bulk restaurant supplies is not one of those.

When they first began operating Flip Burgers and Treats, the Johnsons did shop locally to the level they were able. But now, as the business has thrived, they find themselves putting out an amount of beef each week above and beyond what they can purchase at the grocery stores here. Both owners of Flip would love to purchase more locally but to do that would require a major overhaul of the food supply system. Andi Johnson laughed, “I can’t just run out to a local farmer here to buy lettuce!”

At Eugene’s, the Knodels maintain an account at Reynolds Grocery and often find themselves running next door to purchase items when they unexpectedly run short. S. Knodel is an ardent supporter of supporting local businesses in addition to his own, but acknowledges the supply system is not set up for everything to be made possible through local purchasing.

Therefore local restaurants are reliant on the giant food distribution corporations to keep their operations going and are subject to the disruptions affecting the nation. A local representative with one of the food suppliers said that he has noticed that orders and shortages are mirroring national trends. “One week it’s pork products, the next chicken strips. We just can’t get them in,” he said. He noted that at first glance some shortages seemed odd, such as Smucker’s Uncrustables Sandwiches, but it turns out that shortage had a clear explanation. “So many schools were serving to-go lunches for students,” he said, “and those are an easy, quick meal for kids.”

Beyond the food shortages, restaurants and suppliers have had to deal with disrupted delivery services as well. The trucking industry initially faced a surge in demand as grocery stores scrambled to keep shelves stocked, but then saw a drop off as restaurant business and orders plummeted. Deliveries that were once scheduled for twice a week dropped to once a week.

Knodel said he had to quickly adjust to a “buy smart” strategy, looking weeks ahead for purchases based on what was in stock, what suppliers where having trouble getting and what he could keep on hand. Limited cold storage space is a factor for smaller restaurants such as Eugene’s and Flip. Knodel noted repeatedly he is not a “food hoarder” but that his ordering practices have adjusted based on what has happened to the market. He is not unused to adjusting his needs as events such as sports tournaments will determine how much product he orders, but the all-encompassing changes in the supply chain have proven a challenge.

“I saw the toilet paper run out and that opened my eyes. Then the lettuce. I thought this is gonna get messy in a hurry,” he said, “if I don’t stay on top of it.” The Knodels pride themselves on using the highest quality ingredients they can, and they refuse to compromise on what they deliver to their loyal customers. Cheese is one of those key ingredients for Eugene’s Pizza and at the time Knodel talked with the Courier, he expressed concern over how price increases and availability would play out.

Shortly after that, the food representative groaned, “Cheese has been my nightmare this week.” The price of cheese out of Wisconsin had risen by $20. Knodel noted that even though he has tried numerous cheeses over the years, he has yet to find one besides the brand he uses that meets his exacting standards.

All of the above impacts the bottom lines for local businesses as well, and restaurants are known for operating on thin profit margins. The Johnsons noted they were lucky to remain open and operating their drive-thru during the Montana Governor ordered shut down. They also stated they stayed incredibly busy and were grateful for the community’s support, which resulted in holding off on increasing their burger prices because they had been able to absorb the cost while open.

At Eugene’s, Knodel explained that adjusting the price they charge would require reprinting and replacing all their menus. For now, the family business will absorb the increased operating costs as best they can. He explained that having such a dedicated customer base gives him confidence that they will be able to return to normal soon. “I know a lot of our customers have missed coming in,” he said. “It is more than a meal to them. There is the social aspect too.” Even with limited seating, restaurants are starting to fill up again.

A return to normal for restaurants is essential not only for business but for the community. Eateries do more for small communities than feed them. Owners return the love to the community, donating to fundraisers through gift certificates and supporting sports and extracurricular activities through boosters. The support the Johnsons received during the shut down allowed them to offer a small raise to their employees. A full house at Euguene’s means the wait staff will have cash in hand for extras.

As Andi Johnson said, “We’re not here to make a million. We’re just here to make a living.”


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