FALL RIVER — It’s been a crap shoot for restaurants like Barrett’s Waterfront when it comes to getting the food and supplies that they’ve ordered.
“Every delivery we’re missing something. We never know if what we order is going to show up,” said Barrett’s Waterfront general manager Nathan Setera.
The shortages and delays, he said, are a long-term symptom of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has led to current supply-chain problems, with ships waiting at sea to unload containers at California ports.
Setera said lettuce he had ordered for his Davol Street restaurant was not on Monday’s truck shipment of food and restaurant supplies.
He says the availability of everything from chicken and steak tips to beer has been hampered during the past year.
Fortunately, Setera says he once again is able to get the chicken he needs after a major national shortage last summer.
“So far knock on wood, we’re back in action with chicken,” he said.
The poultry industry was hit hard last February when major winter storms and record-cold temperatures caused power outages across southern-central states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi.
And as restaurants reopened across the country it became difficult for poultry producers to keep up with demand from both restaurants and supermarkets.
Setera said the price of steak tips went “sky high” last summer as supply dwindled, which resulted in a price increase on his menu.
Fortunately, he said, the price has since dropped to the extent that he recently reduced the price of a steak tip plate by $6.
But Setera said there’s a still a shortage of plastic takeout containers. He said Barrett’s now charges an 8-percent surcharge on all takeout orders to help offset the additional cost.
Setera says when he runs short of something he checks with his sister restaurant Barrett’s Alehouse on North Main Street to see if they can help out.
“Luckily I can try to borrow from the other restaurant. That’s our saving grace right now,” he said.
Setera, 35, says staffing problems aren’t as bad as they were when workers collecting unemployment payments were getting extra cash from the federal government.
“Now when we run an ad we actually get a real response,” he said. “It used to be 10 people would call and only two would show up (for an interview), and then they wouldn’t show up the first day of work after we hired them.”
Setera says his dining business has been steady lately. Some customers, he said, understand the problem restaurants are having keeping certain food items in stock and on the menu but that some don’t.
“If you can’t find it in a supermarket and it’s not on the menu it’s because we can’t get it either,” he said.
Supply chain disruptions just the latest pandemic hardship
Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said people sometimes tend to lose sight of the fact that restaurants aren’t unique when it comes to the pandemic and disruption of the global supply chain.
“We’re like every other industry in the country that’s now dealing with the supply chain,” Luz said. “If you go into a supermarket or a Best Buy or Home Depot you see the same thing.”
He said as coronavirus restrictions were lifted and hotels, restaurants and catering businesses were allowed to reopen at full capacity, the food sector scrambled to keep up with demand.
“You had a year with no functions, no weddings, no bar mitzvahs, and all of a sudden it’s back in force,” Luz said.
Luz said restaurants in the Bay State overall are not dealing with the same level of stress that they once were in relation to the supply chain.
“It’s stabilizing. It’s better than it was,” he said.
Luz attributes problems associated with the supply chain disruption to three key factors.
“We’re losing tens of thousands of baby boomers every day to retirement, and there’s a much lower level of new workers as their replacement,” he said.
Luz also says after companies ramped down production during the height of the pandemic they struggled to keep up with demand as health restrictions eased and things began to get back to normal.
And he says trucking, cargo shipping and warehouse businesses all found themselves bereft of workers as demand spiked up.
All of which he said makes it difficult for restaurant owners who don’t know week to week and day to day what will be available from their vendors.
On top of that, Luz said, “They have to alter menus and narrow down certain offerings.”
The membership of the Massachusetts Association of Restaurants, he said, includes 1,400 owners with a total of 5,500 restaurant locations.
Mesa 21, Al Mac’s weather shortages
Dan Sousa, co-owner of Mesa 21 on Lindsey Street, says he was in the same boat as other restaurant owners a couple months ago when chicken was in short supply.
Now he says he’s having some difficulty getting octopus, which is a Portuguese delicacy.
“Recently we’ve been getting a larger size octopus that’s more expensive,” Sousa said.
His bigger problem in recent months has been a shortage of plastic takeout containers and pizza boxes.
Sousa said there’s now a 10 percent surcharge on all takeout orders to offset the higher cost of those containers and boxes.
Cliff Ponte, who manages both Al Mac’s Diner and Al Mac’s On-The-Go for his mayoral candidate son Cliff Ponte Jr., says he’s been facing a similar hurdle.
Ponte said a shortage of plastic cups for iced coffee and juice drinks has impacted Al Mac’s-On-The-Go with its drive-thru lane and emphasis on takeout orders.
He says at one point when he ran out of 20-ounce cups he instructed his employees to use 24-ounce cups and not charge extra.
“Anyone with a big takeout business is facing a big challenge now,” Ponte said.
He says supply vendors have told him they’ve had to ration and reduce the size of orders.
Ponte also said there was a pork shortage a couple months ago that lasted “several weeks” and which affected both locations in terms of bacon and sausage.
He said sales at the flagship Al Mac’s Diner are back to pre-pandemic levels. But Ponte said the rise in paper-product prices, which he says “have spiked considerably,” remain a challenge.
“The paper supply crisis isn’t over yet,” he said.
Charles Winokoor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.
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