Andy Husbands has been trying to make things work. Over the past two months, the chef-owner of three Smoke Shop BBQ restaurants has filled thousands of take-out orders, each requiring specific pick-up windows and elaborate social distancing measures on the part of his staff. The revenue he’s taking in isn’t nearly enough to make him whole, he said, but it’s helping his workers put food on their tables.
That was before his meat costs doubled this week.
Now, in another blow to restaurants already struggling to eke out an existence during the pandemic, the cost of meat has shot up, a result of ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking facilities across the country. It’s forcing restaurants already stretched thin to seek out new sourcing, and pushing prices even higher in a time when losing customers is on everyone’s mind.
Things have gotten so desperate that Ron Savenor, owner of the Savenor’s butcher shops in Beacon Hill and Cambridge, said he got a frantic request from the owner of a Sonic fast-food franchise on the North Shore. The high-end butcher is now supplying the ground beef for Sonic’s hamburgers this week.
“We’re seeing limits and price increases regardless of the type or quality of the meat you’re buying,” said Tony Maws, chef-owner of Craigie on Main. He said restaurants aren’t allowed to buy directly from farms, and can only go through FDA-approved purveyors to purchase meat. But because there are fewer processing facilities than in decades past, restaurateurs who are sourcing their meat from smaller ranchers are still feeling a pinch, particularly now that social distancing measures are slowing down production lines.
“Processing facilities have really diminished in the last decade and the smallest farmers are using the same facilities as the bigger ranchers. There’s just no place to process your meat,” Maws said. “It really is impacting the entire food supply chain.”
Maws said if this continues, his famous Craigie burger, which is now being sold for $16 on his take-out menus, will likely be priced higher in the coming weeks. “The question is how much of a hit do I take and how much do I pass on to the customer, and what is the customer willing to withstand?” he said.
Business is currently at 40 percent of what his normal capacity would be, and he hasn’t paid himself over the past two months to keep the doors open. “That’s what all of us have been doing,” he said. “This is a different time and we’re all trying to figure it out.”
Husbands, meanwhile, said the cost of brisket has doubled, and some of his orders for beef and pork from his distributors haven’t even been arriving. In one instance, he ordered six cases of meat at double the price only to learn that it had accidentally been sold to someone else.
He said if things get worse, getting a brisket “is going to be like a lobster roll — if you want it, it’s going to be expensive.” Like Maws, he said he’s “also really picky about what meats we buy. I don’t want to sell an inferior product.”
But at costs like these, he said, it’s hard to know how long operating like this is sustainable.
Consumers have also added to the demand by turning to more locally processed meat sources as a way to circumvent meat shortages and avoid crowded grocery stores.
Savenor said because he doesn’t work with the big commodity meatpacking plants, he hasn’t felt the pinch as much as larger grocery stores. He shuttered his butcher shops to customers on March 1, far ahead of the mandated shutdown, and has been doing phone orders for pick-up or using the online platform Mercato for local deliveries. Now instead of serving shoppers, his staff is processing hundreds of personal shopping orders a day.
“We deal with small independent places so we’re still able to get product," he said. "But the pricing has really skyrocketed.”
For example, the cost of ground beef has doubled in his stores. “Prices are stupid right now,” he said. And he’s been so wary about having enough product on hand that he’s now filled two cold storage units at his wholesaling facility — which he typically only uses during the summer to ensure he has meat to supply Fenway Park — to ride out the coming weeks.
The ripple effects are also being felt at independent meatpacking plants, which have seen a surge in demand amid the crisis. Mike Lorentz runs two processing plants, the Minnesota-based Lorentz Meats and the Vermont Packing House, which has Carlisle-based Walden Local Meats as a financial partner.
“We are doing about 10 to 20 percent more work on any given day than we were the previous year in both Minnesota and Vermont," he said. He has had to turn away business during the crisis because he doesn’t have the capacity.
He said his Vermont plant typically processes 45 or 50 cows a day, or 130 pigs a day. “That Smithfield plant that closed did 20,000 pigs a day,” he said, referring to one of the largest producers to see an outbreak in its facility. So, while some people suggest that small processing plants like his can help support the industry shortfalls, "a small plant can’t step up and fill the gap, because it’s so much,” he said.
“In general we’re busier than we’ve ever been," Lorentz said. "We’re working as hard as we’ve ever worked to try to keep to keep food on people’s plates.”