A surge of diners returning to restaurants are squeezing food supply chains, with impacts extending all the way to Alaska, where suppliers are short on stock and restaurant owners are scrambling to find ketchup, chicken and other items.
Jerry Purcell, an owner of Sunday’s Caribbean Cuisine in northeast Anchorage, visited three restaurant supply stores on Friday. But even then, he couldn’t find all the right to-go containers.
“Used to be one spot, you get everything,” Purcell said while shopping at Alaska Restaurant Supply in Midtown. “Not anymore.”
Purcell said he couldn’t find the flat plastic lids he needed for the Caribbean and Hawaiian restaurant, soon to be renamed Sunday’s Loko Moko Deli. He’s covering the spicy oka, a raw fish salad like ceviche, with aluminum foil. He’ll top the island smoothies with domed lids, using whipped cream to fill the empty space so patrons feel like they got their full value. He also couldn’t find certain sizes of clamshell containers, so he had to use larger ones.
He hasn’t seen anything like this after about two decades in the restaurant business, he said.
“It’s a shortage all right,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered consumer habits and worldwide shipping patterns as people stayed home, contributing to supply snarls for everything from lumber to laptops. Food, beverage and kitchen utensils, as well as appliances, are a current problem.
The disruptions are the latest challenge for a hospitality industry struggling to recover from dine-in closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more recently, contending with difficulties hiring available workers.
Saint Coyote restaurant in South Anchorage hasn’t been able to buy lamb chops from its distributor for months, forcing owner Jesse Gallo to shop for them at stores around town.
“It is a big frustration not having what you need,” he said.
He can’t find certain brands of whiskey and tequila from suppliers, he said. And for about a month, Costco ran out of bulk containers of ketchup.
“It was just like toilet paper at the start of the pandemic,” he said. “The only kind I could find at the store was organic ketchup in little jars.”
Racheal Anaruk, manager at Alaska Restaurant Supply, said dishes, glasses, silverware and some pans are in short supply or out of stock. Items imported from overseas can be on back-order for long periods.
The surge in restaurant activity is compounding the delays, she said.
“Everyone is just getting back to work (all at once),” she said. “Seasonal places that didn’t open last year. We’re seeing those again.”
The restaurant business has come “roaring back” and restaurants and bars across the U.S. suddenly need supplies, said Meghan Cieslak, with the International Foodservice Distributors Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
The supply chain is trying to catch up, she said. During much of the pandemic, food suppliers focused on getting retail products to grocery stores, where business was booming, Cieslak said. They turned their attention away from bulk products sought by restaurants and bars, where activity had slowed.
Also, social distancing and other restrictions on food processing plants, plus occasional outbreaks of COVID-19, limited production of meats and other items.
A lack of workers is slowing transportation and also affecting other companies along the food supply chain, she said.
Adrianne Foltz is a former spirits and wine distributor in Anchorage who recently opened The Broken Blender, a cocktail bar and restaurant in Anchorage.
She said Alaska is often the last state to receive shipments for alcoholic beverages, in part because of relatively low demand compared to other states and the logistical challenges of getting items here.
She said her distributor hasn’t been able to find Crown Royal whiskey from Canada for weeks. She’s had to shop at Costco for it. There’s not enough Coors Light and Blue Moon beer to keep up with demand, she said. And specialty beers are hard to find.
Companies aren’t making draft beer as much, she said, referring to beer from a keg or cask, rather than a bottle or can.
Jay Ramras, owner of Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks, said he can usually buy chicken for biscuit sandwiches and orange juice in large quantities, for free breakfasts at the 180-room lodge.
But the distributor, U.S. Foods, couldn’t obtain them in recent weeks, he said.
One problem with the chicken shortage is that roosters with Tyson, one of the world’s largest meat processors, aren’t meeting breeding expectations, among other issues, Ramras said.
“It’s a schizophrenic marketplace,” Ramras said. “Nothing is working like it’s supposed to work.”
Instead of large deliveries to the restaurant’s back door, managers are buying retail-sized items from grocery stores. That adds pressure to the hotel’s bottom line, he said.
“It takes time for a food and beverage manager to stand in a checkout line,” he said. “But we’re moving a whole lot more sandwiches than we were last year.”
He added, “We’d rather have the problems we have this year, than the ones we had last year.”