Del Rodrigues goes through a lot of cheese at her café, Brazilian Bread in Berkeley.
She orders around 80 pounds a week of Parmesan, cotija and a little cheddar from the San Jose-based El Mexicano Cheese Company in order to make her signature fare — little puffy balls of Brazilian cheese bread called pão de queijo. Before the coronavirus outbreak, sourcing that dairy wasn’t a problem. But over the past month or so, a suddenly unstable supply chain had Rodrigues scrambling.
“We have to bulk produce our pão de queijo,” Rodrigues said, “But for a couple weeks I couldn’t shop for the cheese I need, so we had to start buying small packages in bunches. That doesn’t really work, though, because we have to make so much.”
Rodrigues isn’t the only one struggling to find certain kitchen ingredients. With so many people sheltering in place, home baking has surged to unprecedented levels leading to shortages of wheat flour in grocery stores all over the world. Many flour mills, including this 1,000-year-old mill in southwest England that is operational again after spending 50 years as a museum, are now kicking production into overdrive.
The meat industry has arguably been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Modern meat factories are designed to process tens of millions of beef, pork and poultry heads per week, and there’s no infrastructure in place to keep those animals alive in case of emergency. So, even a brief closure would spell mass euthanization of those animals, and in addition to major ethical concerns, that would send enormous ripple effects through the food ecosystem, like shortages and increased product prices for consumers. And unfortunately, a slew of positive COVID-19 cases at processing plants has turned that nightmare into a reality. Several high-volume farms have shut down, and Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest meat processor, issued a warning recently that the U.S. “food supply chain is breaking.”
For many restaurants, this means menus will need to evolve in some unexpected ways.
“Very quickly, we looked at our supply chain,” said Akash Kapoor, CEO of Bay Area-based franchise Curry Up Now, which operates multiple restaurants and food trucks throughout California (including in Oakland), New Jersey, Utah and Atlanta. “And we got a call from somebody we know saying, ‘Hey, you should start looking at chicken very, very carefully.’ That’s our number one protein, and we buy a very specific chicken that comes from a specific farm out of state.”
A franchise like Curry Up Now has to maintain uniformity across all of its 12 locations, so items with some degree of specificity to them, like that chicken from Wayne Farms in Oakwood, Georgia, which is also a halal product, are difficult to find a substitution for. Kapoor said they’re not at the point of “hoarding” it yet, but they’re definitely increasing volume of orders when appropriate.
“I think people should start buying smarter, leaner. But at the end of the day, it’s always going to be chef to chef.”
There is a silver lining for Curry Up Now despite this uncertainty — the chance to truly optimize every level of its business, starting with inventory.
“We’re simplifying,” Kapoor said. “We’re combining stuff. We used to garnish with four different microgreens, but now we’ve gotten rid of that. We’re back to a simple mix of cilantro, mint and chives. And whatever we use, we also use in some other way on the menu. It can’t just exist as a garnish. It has to have a purpose on the menu.”
Efficiency is crucial right now, especially if food-supply disruptions continue to compromise the availability of certain ingredients.
“I think people should start buying smarter, leaner,” Kapoor said. “But at the end of the day, it’s always going to be chef to chef. Some people are going to realize they don’t need 165 ingredients to build 10 menu items. Some are going to say, ‘No, this is what I do, and this is how I’m going to continue to do it,’ and that’s okay, too.”
One East Bay chef, Kyle Itani, actually opened a sushi restaurant during the shutdown. Nikkei Sushi is nestled within another one of Itani’s restaurants, Itani Ramen in Uptown Oakland. Originally, Itani planned to launch Nikkei in its own space last year, but he put it on the back burner because he had enough on his plate tending to his other restaurants. But with some financial support from a recently approved Payment Protection Program loan, Itani decided now was the time to open Nikkei, especially since many sushi chefs are out of work and specifications for the loan require spending a certain minimum amount on payroll.
“I know a lot of sushi chefs aren’t working, and I can give jobs to them, at least,” Itani said. “Probably going to hire some more, too, sales have been high enough for it to make sense. We’re just kind of pushing forward, and it’s going great so far.”
But all of the product Itani works with from suppliers Aloha Seafood and True World Fish Company in San Francisco is imported from Japan and Fiji, or driven up from Santa Cruz, meaning there is a lengthy distribution chain before it finally arrives at Itani’s kitchen. And with coronavirus essentially putting the restaurant industry on ice, supply-and-demand ratios for seafood have shifted dramatically, leading to increased prices.
“Fish is definitely more expensive than it was before this,” Itani said, “but that’s because a lot of fish we use has to come through L.A. before they drive it up here. Now that order volume is decreasing, there may not be a trucker who will want to haul only half a load up to the Bay Area if the truck isn’t full, so then they have to find someone who will drive it. The only way to do that is to pay that person more, and those costs kind of get passed onto us.”
Itani is willing to bite the bullet as far as rising food costs. Nikkei has done well in its infancy stages, and the PPP loan can also help soften any potential losses. If it ever becomes hard to source fish, whether because of price or availability, Itani is optimistic.
“One thing we can do is just go back to being chefs, which I think is kind of cool. You can just go to the market and do with what you’ve got.”
“I don’t think most restaurants will have to start hoarding certain things,” Itani, who also owns Hopscotch, said. “One thing we can do is just go back to being chefs, which I think is kind of cool. You can just go to the market and do with what you’ve got.”
Nevertheless, Itani is aware of the need to rethink his menus to prepare for inflating expenses. Nikkei is only offering a very limited selection of seafood right now — yellowtail, salmon, tuna and freshwater eel— in order to “test the waters.” And with decreased sales, Itani Ramen simply can’t afford to continue offering certain items.
“We did try and scale down the menu [at Itani Ramen],” he said. “Because this whole economy is “to scale,” right? Basically, if I only order a pound of this or that, it’s going to be really expensive, and I’m not really selling through it anyway, so we took some of those things off the menu.”
Rodrigues, Kapoor and Itani aren’t sure when, where or for how long they’ll be able to buy what they need to make their food, but they’re not sitting still to wait and see. They’re devising ways to tackle both the supply and the no-dining issues, and some of those solutions have already been put in motion.
Brazilian Bread, for example, now ships unique offerings like home-brewed kombucha vinegar and fully prepared, frozen meals for anyone stuck at home craving Brazilian food. These items are made in-house with widely available, local ingredients, so Rodrigues won’t have any issues sourcing them, although she is also selling imported specialties from South America like açaí pulp and yuca. There’s no guarantee she’ll be able to sensibly purchase those items for this new shipped-goods menu, but it’s been a success so far, and Rodrigues promises it will “for sure” be a part of her business even after the pandemic fades.
Curry Up Now is embarking on new ventures, too, to help drive sales and survive the no-dine-in crisis. They’ve partnered with retail service Goldbelly, an online marketplace for gourmet food shipping, to allow Curry Up Now customers in all 50 states to order frozen, packaged signature items like Deconstructed Samosas or Chicken Tikka Burritos. And they’ve made several tweaks to their fare to become more efficient in the face of supply-chain disruptions.
“We shrunk our menu and looked at things that we thought wouldn’t move as much,” Kapoor said. “But for herbs and things like that, I do feel there’s still some wastage because sales are very hard to predict right now. Still, it’s always easier to ‘fill in’ and order more product than to ‘take out,’ right?”
Itani, on the other hand, isn’t doing much out of the ordinary as far as running his businesses. He remains unfazed by whatever daunting challenges come with opening a restaurant during a global health crisis. When asked if he’s worried at all about fish prices trending up or any other supply-chain issues, Itani bursts into laughter.
“Nope, I got enough stuff to worry about,” he said. “I’ll cross that bridge and figure something out if it becomes a problem, but I haven’t had any issues yet.”
Rodrigues isn’t quite as sanguine. She is very concerned about not being able to find the particular cheeses she needs at some point in the near future.
“Our Plan B is to work with whatever is available.”
“Right now, it’s okay,” Rodrigues said about sourcing dairy. “But the first few weeks? It was terrible. It was very hard. I’m worried it might get hard to find supplies again.”
She makes around 5,000 orders of pão de queijo per week. So, in the event that the dairy market dries up again, Rodrigues has to have a contingency plan. She’ll have no choice but to, as Itani says, “go to the market and do with what (she’s) got.”
“Our Plan B is to work with whatever is available,” Rodrigues said, “We’ve started testing other cheeses to see if we can find an easier way to make our pão de queijo.”
“But no luck so far.”
Brazilian Bread, 1707 Solano Ave. (at Tulare Avenue), Berkeley; Nikkei Sushi at Itani Ramen, 1736 Telegraph Ave. (between 17th and 19th streets), Oakland; Curry Up Now, 1745 San Pablo Ave. (between 17th and 19th streets), Oakland
Harrison Liao is a graduate student at Medill Northwestern University and freelance food reporter. He hosts the podcast “Restaurants Fighting COVID,” an ongoing series of conversations with restaurant owners and chefs about how the coronavirus crisis has impacted their businesses and livelihoods.