Pandemic-related materials, food, and labor shortages make running an independent restaurant near-impossible. Here’s how three owners are doing it.
At its start, the pandemic brought us images of vast trenches of rotting onions, piles of abandoned produce, and lakes of wasted milk, dumped by farmers who no longer had restaurants to buy their products. Then, it seemed like there wasn’t enough of anything: Certain Starbucks locations ran out of peach juice, sweet cream, and even cold-brew coffee. At one point, ketchup packets were in such high demand as customers avoided indoor dining in favor of drive-thrus, takeout, and delivery options that Heinz built eight new production lines — a process that normally takes well over a year. Where eating at restaurants became an option, the experience felt different. Even as some of these supply chain hiccups and irregularities resolved, others popped up.
Now, restaurants are filling up again, and the surrounding streets and stores feel busier than they did a year ago. But even as life inches closer to “normal” for some diners, the inner workings of packed restaurants remain anything but. Anywhere where COVID is spiking or demands have shifted during the pandemic, supply chains have faltered: an outbreak at a meat-processing plant or on a large farm; not enough drivers to make regular deliveries to restaurants; holdups at ports where materials or ingredients are offloaded, because workers have tested positive for COVID. Along with environmental conditions triggered by global warming, COVID has snarled supply chains across the world, and food supplies are no exception.
Shortages and sourcing issues are becoming the new normal for restaurant operators. “We live in a world that, for a lot of reasons, has become very globally interconnected,” says Trey Malone, an agricultural and food economist, and an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s College of Agricultural and Natural Resources. That is, according to the professor, particularly true of the food we eat. “[Our food supply] is not all one supply chain,” he says. “They’re all a bunch of linked chains that end up on the same restaurant plate, but they come from different processes.”
Diners might not notice these shortages — many restaurants make it their mission to operate in a way that obscures any difficulties in the kitchen — but if you look closely, you’ll see them: Menus are slimmer, because ingredients erratically come and go from suppliers’ lists. Sometimes, items that appear on menus may not actually be available, the ingredients left out of the delivery that day. Short-staffed and overwhelmed, restaurants’ hours of operation have been cut back, with signs on windows practically pleading line cooks and waiters to apply for one of many open positions. New restaurants, even from the most seasoned operators, have pushed their opening dates back further and further, as they wait for lumber and other raw materials that are now in short supply. This is, for now at least, as close to normal as it gets for restaurants navigating the pandemic.
The Great Material Shortage
“The shortages have touched everything,” says Alex Stupak, chef and co-owner of New York’s Empellón restaurant group. Stupak was already months into designing his newest New York restaurant when COVID hit, and he paused the project. He was grateful when the pandemic let up enough in New York for him to move forward with the construction of the space. Maybe, he thought, he could stick with his original timeline for opening the restaurant. Then the delays from missing materials started piling up; now, he’s at least six months behind. “You find that all the material that you selected, or many of the lead times that were quoted, are just now grossly inaccurate.” Eventually, the products did arrive, but the deliveries didn’t always reflect what Stupak had ordered.
Then there are Stupak’s existing restaurants. When indoor dining was shut down and restaurants in New York pivoted to outdoor seating, they were required to outfit their sidewalk spaces with reflective tape to protect them from passing cars. Only, Stupak says, “I couldn’t find reflective tape.” The plywood Stupak needed to build his outdoor patio was exponentially more expensive than it would have been in 2019 — the price of lumber was, for a time, sky-high, spurred by a housing boom, renovation projects during the pandemic, and the fact that while demand is extremely high, many mills shut down temporarily to institute new safety measures. For Stupak, and countless other restaurant owners, these kinds of delays and fluctuations in material costs made responding to the daily demands of the pandemic expensive and time-intensive.
As operators raced to meet constantly changing guidelines, materials that were once in abundance, like reflective tape, and once cheap, like plywood, were not only hard to find — even when you could find them, it was sometimes still impossible to have them delivered.
“They say they’re sending you the tile, and it’s highly delayed. And then when they show up, they actually short you 33 percent of it,” says Stupak. “I need to finish this wall in order to finish the plumbing, in order to finish the electric, in order to put the kitchen equipment in, in order to move it out of the dining room, in order to put in the dining room furniture.” Between shutdowns at some of the busiest ports around the world due to COVID outbreaks, along with many trucking fleets shrinking or going out of business because of limited demand early in the pandemic, the infrastructure to get any goods — whether food or planks of wood — from one point to another is buckling. Restaurants require a constant supply of raw ingredients, of course, but also other materials — cleaning supplies, plates and glassware, chairs and tables, and so much more — and have felt the effects of these disruptions to shipping and transportation.
“In the bigger picture, everywhere is short-staffed,” Stupak says. “Some beautiful tile that you ordered 12 months ago to finish a wall in your restaurant still hasn’t shown up.” Shortages, Stupak says, “have touched restaurants in that way, too.”
The Great Food Shortage
Daniel Bagnall has tried on several occasions to take mac and cheese off the menu at Sonder, his small wine bar and restaurant in Hudson, New York, but his regular customers complain whenever he does. Crucial to the dish is using the right pasta — one produced by Sfoglini, an Upstate New York pasta maker. Like most of the dried goods at Sonder, the pasta is delivered by a food vendor whose trucks make weekly drops. Recently, however, when Bagnall put in for his order of Sfoglini pasta, only a single box arrived, and it was another brand. Until new menus were printed and the pasta was available again, Bagnall had to explain to customers that this time, they really couldn’t have their favorite dish. “All we can do is just hope that our customers are okay with the offerings that we have,” says Bagnall. “There’s not really much else we can do.”
Over the course of the pandemic, small businesses like Sonder have faced constant snags when ordering from major produce and specialty food purveyors like Baldor. “The way that the vendors treat small businesses has been overwhelming and crazy,” says Bagnall. “They’ve cut their delivery dates and times pretty dramatically. They’ve raised prices, and their minimum is now higher than it used to be. So for a small business like us, being forced to spend $300 on an order really makes it hard to turn a profit.”
It’s not just increased ordering minimums and limited service hours that have made sourcing an issue for Bagnall, but the inconsistency with which ingredients are available. “A lot of the vendors do this really sketchy thing, where you’ll order something local and the box will come in, and it’ll be from, like, West Virginia,” says Bagnall. On one occasion, he says, a box of “local” beets came with a label stating they were actually from Mexico. “When it’s already on the menu, it kind of forces us to use this product… We have to also make money and have products to sell.”
Some smaller farms, like the ones Bagnall aims to source his produce from, began doing direct-to-consumer sales during the pandemic, and as these farms navigate their own problems finding workers and transporting produce, all while facing the disruptions of climate change, sourcing issues are passed on to delivery companies like Baldor — and suppliers like Baldor pass them on to restaurants like Bagnall’s. “Small independent restaurants do not have as robust of access to the more complicated supply chains in the United States [as large chain restaurants],” says Malone, the agricultural and food economist. “That’s especially true in rural parts of the country.”
This is certainly at play in Hudson, where Bagnall has trouble advocating for his business when orders don’t arrive or are only partially delivered. He says his friends and colleagues who own restaurants nearby are facing similar issues, but the ones who own bigger spaces and place larger orders have more leverage with delivery companies; when orders are bungled and the chefs threaten to close their accounts, they sometimes see service improve. Though sourcing was already something of a challenge for smaller restaurants before the pandemic, Bagnall says it’s gotten worse by “tenfold” during the past year and a half.
Benjamin Walker, Baldor’s senior vice president of sales, marketing, and merchandising, says that like so many of the restaurants the company services, the food provider is also struggling with staffing issues. “We are experiencing a labor shortage, Baldor drivers being our biggest need at the moment,” he wrote in an email to Eater. Without enough drivers, Walker says that Baldor does not have the resources to deliver every day in some of the regions the company services. “We had to move to a three times a week delivery schedule in our farthest-reaching delivery zones.” As for raised ordering minimums, Walker attributes price hikes to increases in Baldor’s operating costs.
Difficulty sourcing ingredients has fundamentally changed how Bagnall plans his menus and creates new dishes. It’s become near-impossible for him to conceive of and execute technically complicated dishes that require days of preparation and planning. “If I order a product that I have to marinate, cook, and then cool, you’re talking about a two-day process. But then the next time I go to order it, I can’t get the ingredients again,” he says. “Suddenly this really cool, creative dish is just available for a couple days. I have to explain to customers why a dish they loved suddenly is gone. It looks flippant and unprepared. And it sucks.”
The Great Labor Shortage
Before the pandemic hit, George Chen employed more than 200 people at China Live, his expansive San Francisco multi-concept Chinese restaurant and marketplace. “A bomb went off, and nobody had felt the effects yet,” Chen says of the pandemic’s early impact on restaurants. “I didn’t know the effects would last this long. I thought we’d be back some time last year.” Entirely shutting down then reopening the nearly 30,000-square-foot restaurant was not a financially realistic option, so with a skeleton crew, the restaurant’s to-go operation kept chugging along through the spring and summer of 2020, as Chen reimagined his menu to be takeout- and delivery-friendly.
As restrictions on indoor dining were eased in March 2021, Chen was able to bring back a greater portion of staff, and little by little, revive his restaurant. He installed air filters to make indoor dining safer, and spent months building out sidewalk parklets in front of the restaurant to create space for outdoor dining. He had just outfitted China Live’s outdoor dining setup with a roof in anticipation of the changing weather when, in December 2020, COVID-19 cases spiked in San Francisco, and restaurants including his were forced to close all on-site dining once again.
More damaging than any material costs, says Chen, were the effects of a second set of shutdowns on his staff. After Chen had to lay off staff a second time, he saw a shift, he says, in the psyche of some of his most passionate cooks and waitstaff. At Eight Tables, the upscale restaurant housed on the second floor of China Live, Chen says that he lost three of his four best cooks. Those cooks, and others like them, changed careers, finding more reliable and less risky work, as government mandates required restaurants to continue the seemingly endless cycle of closing and reopening.
Though Chen’s restaurant is enormous, and requires hundreds of people to run smoothly, the issues at China Live are shared by many smaller restaurants, too. Across the board, from tiny neighborhood spots to massive chains, restaurants are struggling to restaff at before-times levels.
Of course, restaurant workers’ reasons for not returning to pre-pandemic jobs are varied. Chen suspects that for many, the relentless and often thankless nature of kitchen and front-of-house work just doesn’t seem worth it now that the risks are so much higher. “[I]n our business, you’re exposed daily to people you don’t know — especially front-of-house [employees]. A lot of these folks are probably going, ‘Do I really want to do [this work]? … This virus has killed over 4 million people worldwide.’ And that kind of psyche is probably going to linger.”
As forward-looking independent restaurant owners try to make the restaurant industry a business that workers will actively want to return to, some are taking pay cuts and raising wages. Some restaurant owners have also told Eater that during the pandemic they’ve been more cautious than local mandates require, to ensure staff feel safe enough to return to work. But even in these environments, where owners are conscientious and pay fairly, there’s only so much they can do to control the actual experience of being a serviceworker during a global health crisis.
Many restaurant owners — including Chen of China Live — point to unemployment benefits as one major reason it has been so difficult to rehire staff. “No one wants to work,” is now a common refrain among restaurant owners frustrated by the shortage of available workers. But data from some states that have ended enhanced unemployment benefits suggests that doing so did not actually lead to an increase in hiring. Advocates for the industry suggest the labor shortage is far more complicated than a simple supply and demand issue. Line cook Isaac Furman told Eater in May that after leaving the industry for what he thought would be a temporary break, he hasn’t returned, “because I can’t really trust any restaurant owners to provide a safe environment for their employees.” (A study published in February by the University of California, San Francisco found that line cooks had the highest rate of mortality of any workers during the pandemic; increased vaccination rates across the country have changed this risk calculus, but with the highly transmissible delta variant still spreading aggressively, fear — and serious risk — remains.)
And for front of house staff, being harassed or yelled at by rude customers — especially those who refuse to wear their masks — could mean risking their health or livelihood. During the scattershot openings and closings of restaurant dining rooms and the associated layoffs and rehirings, many restaurant workers have found work in other industries. “Because the future was so unpredictable, I started to look for other types of work,” one front-of-house worker told Eater Austin earlier this year. “It’s scary not knowing what’s going to happen and having zero job security.”
These near-daily crises are proof of just how much the restaurant industry relies on readily available labor, and a fragile web of supply chains, many of which have faltered during the pandemic. Malone, who has studied food systems for over a decade, says he’s “probably learned more about food supply chains in the last year than I did for the rest of that time.” That is, in part, because he’s watched so many of those supply and distribution networks crumble.
The inability to get the same ingredients week after week and the rising minimums for each order are affecting how Bagnall in Hudson thinks about his future as a chef and restaurateur. He has one restaurant, and a new cafe on the way, and is reevaluating how he runs his restaurant on a permanent basis because of the pandemic and its many challenges. Being a few boxes of noodles short or getting the wrong kind of beets might not sound like a major snag, but when it happens week after week those hurdles become detrimental. “We’re a tiny, tiny business. Any of these speed bumps, on the daily, risk putting us out of business,” says Bagnall. “With that in mind, we have to order less and reduce our reliance on larger companies. From there, all we can do is hope for the best.”
When it comes to food and materials, when will the supply chains return to something resembling normal? That has a lot to do with how the pandemic — and climate change, along with so many other moving pieces — plays out. Which is to say, no one really knows yet. Adam S. Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, told the New York Times that when it comes to the material shortages and supply chain disruption, “There is a genuine uncertainty here,” and that challenges could persist for “another year or two.”
For his part, Stupak has tried to remain positive. Despite all the unknowns, and the many setbacks, he has been able to slowly but surely move forward with the construction of his new restaurant. Apart from pushing back the opening date by six months, his vision for the space hasn’t changed drastically. “It’s a time to be extremely aware, and sensitive. But I don’t think it’s time to make a call, saying, ‘Well, this is how it is now.’ I am working on more restaurants and I remain ambitious,” he says. “I’m not going to design a restaurant based on a dystopian reality where no one can approach a bar ever again. I designed my [new] restaurant with the idea that this is temporary and people are going to be thankful to sit at a bar again.” He just doesn’t know when that will be.
At his cavernous San Francisco restaurant, Chen doesn’t think he’ll ever reopen for lunch service. The surrounding Chinatown neighborhood isn’t busy enough, now that so many people are working from home — he doesn’t anticipate all of them going back into offices, even after restrictions ease. But even if the customers were to show up at noon, he doesn’t reckon he could find enough people to staff the restaurant for the added hours.
Because there are so many barriers keeping people from returning to work, the labor force will not bounce back to its pre-pandemic state all at once. A Census Bureau survey in March suggests 4.2 million adults weren’t working in large part because of fears surrounding COVID. As the various obstacles preventing people from working are resolved or become less immediate — schools staying safely reopened, and more contagious COVID variants not popping up — the labor shortage might ease. But writing for the New York Times, David Autor, a professor in the MIT department of economics, argued that now, as “Americans are less eager to do low-paid, often dead-end service and hospitality work,” the hiring crisis is an opportunity: “Imagine that the U.S. had a market mechanism that spurred employers to voluntarily pay higher wages, offer better benefits and use workers more productively. Actually, that mechanism exists — it’s called a labor shortage.”
Economists might not be able to agree upon an end date for America’s current labor predicament, but it’s possible, as Autor says, that the crisis will lead to better, fairer conditions for workers down the line. When it comes to facing his restaurant’s labor shortage, Chen’s outlook is similar. He believes the attitude of restaurant owners and customers alike will have to change for the labor shortage to turn around. “I believe customers have to realize that people in the food industry deserve better than how they’ve been treated,” he says. “I think our business will have to take care of our people better.” Chen expects the cost of doing business to continue to rise, especially when it comes to pay. He transitioned to a service-charge model during the pandemic, and plans to stick with it. “[Y]ou’ve got to take care of your people more. If you don’t take care of them, why would they take the extra risk to be in this business, when it’s hard enough?”
Jamiel Law is a Brooklyn-based illustrator.