For baker Henry de Jong, a glaring indication that we are not yet out of the pandemic is the lack of lard.
The co-owner of two Sweet and Savory Pie Company Waterloo locations struggled to source the pork product – essential to making delicious pies – and when he found it, the price soared.
“It’s been extremely difficult to navigate the past two years. The price of lard and shortening doubled last year without notice overnight,” de Jong said. “And when something runs out, it takes weeks before it’s replenished.”
A 20 kg box he paid $40 now costs $85. De Jong adds that flour and sugar – the mainstays of a bakery – have increased by 50% in the past year. This means that the goods purchased will cost consumers more, although he held back on this until recently.
“We raised our prices last week,” de Jong said.
With August now here, fall is looming; and the problem of supply shortages – food and non-food – has not abated according to area chefs, restaurateurs and food operators who source from sources other than you and me when we visit a grocery store.
Little Mushroom in Cambridge reports struggling to find frozen crab chunks, buns and Dijon mustard curds.
Hemlock Burger Barn’s Josh Perovic was puzzled when looking for thick bacon – and in an area rich in pork production.
“The price has jumped, when you can find it. We’re looking at buying a bigger slicer and making our own bacon in-house,” Perovic said.
Businesses struggle to source branded napkins, staff uniforms with logos, and bamboo cocktail skewers. There is a shortage of cake boxes, cardboard boxes, pizza boxes, paper bags and pint ice cream cartons.
What is missing is sometimes surprising: cornstarch, for example.
“It was so hard to find. We will buy some and it will be four to six weeks before we can find it. And then the price went up,” de Jong said.
According to Fat Sparrow’s Nick Benninger, even a mundane, humble cellophane-wrapped side dish that you dunk into your soup for lunch has been rare.
“It took me three months to get salty crackers,” he said.
Wobbling for a while
While he thinks supply lines are becoming more stable, Sylvain Charlebois, director of Dalhousie University’s food analysis lab, thinks they’re still wobbly.
“That will be a theme for fall and winter. I think we’re going to hear about shortages of different things depending on how demand works,” Charlebois said.
He says another humble condiment – mustard – may also be in short supply in the near future, even though Canada is the world’s largest producer of mustard seeds. (We ship our mustard seeds elsewhere to process them into mustard and then buy them back at a value-added price, which is another economic issue).
“The mustard harvest was terrible last year, but you don’t hear about a shortage until later the following year. People don’t buy mustard every day. It might be every six months,” Charlebois said.
“Now for catering, of course, it’s much more critical, although they can make substitutions [on their menus].”
As wheat shortages from the start of the Russian war against Ukraine slowly ease, Charlebois predicts that we can expect shortages of chickpeas – a big problem for hummus lovers – and cocoa, which would be disappointing if you like chocolate on Halloween and Christmas.
I checked in with the Arabesque Family Restaurant in Kitchener, and while their hummus production is currently strong for their Middle Eastern menu, they’ve recently struggled to stock up on tahini.
Retailers and commercial suppliers are telling similar stories of out of stock. At Flanagan Foodservice, President and CEO Dan Lafrance says the list of what they constantly have in stock is shorter than the list of what is regularly out of stock.
“It’s something new every day,” Lafrance said. “Whether it’s Asian or local and in just about every category.”
Label shortages prevent Flanagan from supplying bottles of juice to their restaurant customers; spices and breads are often lacking. Pizza boxes can be delayed for three to six months. And when they arrive, the prices have gone up.
“Delivery times have increased,” says Lafrance. “Where five days’ notice was the norm, it is now 15 days.”
The economy of low inventory colliding with strong demand has made supply erratic and contributed to higher prices: Lafrance says the food and beverage industry has rebounded faster and stronger than anyone else had foreseen it and with it, the demand.
Anything steel and plastic is hard to come by — and anything you might expect to see on your favorite restaurant’s table is rare, says Todd Doherty, marketing director at stop Restaurant Supply.
“It’s the whole table right now,” Doherty says. “Glassware, cutlery, china, wine glasses. We might have them one month, but the next month, nothing.”
Is this a new reality? Is it no longer true that we have a food world at our fingertips, or only intermittently, from harissa paste to Russian chickpeas?
Charlebois seems to think that just-in-time logistics and struggling supply lines will eventually settle down in the long run, but he could end up thinking that changes in the supply sourcing industry could be here for a longer term, he said. And that will include higher prices at virtually every restaurant.
“It used to be that more options were better. Restaurants had plentiful menus, but I think we’re going to start to see the reverse,” Charlebois says.
“We’re going to see them review their menus and focus on items they can move and sell. That means less, and less is likely to be better for their business going forward.”