OTTUMWA — As a new work week was about to get underway at Warehouse Barbeque, proprietor Dusty Ware took to Facebook to post a message to let his customers know exactly how the coronavirus has affected his business.
Warehouse Barbecue would remain closed for dine-in service, even with restrictions currently lifted to allow the restaurant to open the dining room up to 50 percent capacity. The bigger revelation, however, was the impact being felt on the supply of food that Warehouse Barbecue would be able to serve its customers.
“There is a serious meat supply shortage in this country. No restaurant feels those effects more than a barbeque restaurant,” Ware said. “For us, we’re having challenges getting pork and beef. When we do get it, it’s 50 to 60 percent higher than we paid for two weeks ago.
“Are we going to increase our menus prices? No, we are not. No one wants to pay $13.50 for a brisket sandwich, myself included. What we are going to do is discontinue bulk meat orders for now so we have enough meat to go around and do our best to provide our entire menu.”
Indeed, the effects of coronavirus are starting to truly be felt in the food supply chain. Ware’s announcement of the restaurant’s shortages came just one day ahead of Hy-Vee’s announcement that limits will be placed on the amount of meat customers will be able to buy in a single store.
“We continue to work with industry leaders so we are prepared for any possible fluctuations in product and can best serve our customers,” company leaders said in a prepared statement. “At Hy-Vee, we have product available at our stores, but due to worker shortages at plants as well as an increase in meat sales, customers may not find the specific items they are looking for. Because of this, we are going to put a limit on customer purchases in the meat department.”
Each customer will be limited to four packages of a combination of fresh beef, ground beef, pork and chicken when they checkout at all Hy-Vee locations. It’s just the latest measure food distributors are having to take as meat processing plants in the state and across the nation deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Grocery stores imposing restrictions on meat purchases are trying to be proactive, given the slow-downs at meat processing plants caused by COVID-19 infections among workers,” Iowa State University agriculture economist Chad Hart said. “Stores recognize that supplies may be limited for key products, so restrictions will help spread out the remaining supply.”
Kevin Hatfield is seeing the same proactive approach being taken by restaurants across the state of Iowa. The Ottumwa resident works for a food service distribution company whose lifeblood, he said, is independent restaurants.
“I’ve talked to plenty of restaurants that are needing pork and needing beef right now. We just can’t source it for them because it’s just not there,” Hatfield said. “Plants are closed and they’re not taking as many head of cattle or hogs in to process.
“It’s pretty frustrating. It’s taking a toll on several independent restaurants. Some of them might not make it through this.”
According to Hart, meat processing plant slowdowns are causing difficult decisions for hog producers who depend on the large facilities. While local lockers can process some animals, it will not nearly be as many as the larger plants that can process 20,000 hogs per day.
“It’s likely there are some producers in Iowa who are having to reduce their herds because of the current hiccup in the system,” Hart said. “Farmers need to move the hogs that are ready to make way for the arrival of the next herd of animals. If something breaks down in the system, it creates a bottleneck and difficult decisions.”
The unprecedented dilemma for the pork industry has forced farmers to try and hold on to fully raised hogs and continue spending money to feed and house the animals with no guarantee of a financial return, or to figure out how to kill healthy hogs and dispose of carcasses weighing up to 300 pounds in landfills or by composting them on farms for fertilizer.
“Everything from restaurants to retail is still slowly trying to recover,” Hatfield said. “I’ve read stories that it’s currently cheaper for farmers to plow their crops under that they’ve grown under contracts for restaurants or food service than it is for them to harvest those crops and let it go to waste or go to retail.”
Both Hatfield and Ware are, as Hatfield said, cautiously optimistic that things can turn around, citing the need for food throughout the world. In the meantime, the current shortage of certain products may require restauranteurs to be innovative in their approach moving forward.
“We kind of got out in front of things last May when we launched our own app with the online ordering and the delivery. That got people used to using that while other places were still learning those processes,” Ware added. “It’s just a matter of managing the volume of what’s coming in, but we’re open to anything. I’ll open for breakfast and start serving pancakes if I have to. We know every day that we’re fortunate to have the customers that we do.”