PROVIDENCE — The offerings are a little different at Sanjiv and Vandana Dhar’s four restaurants, from the oldest Indian eatery in Rhode Island to their latest location in Cranston, which marries spices from the subcontinent with mixology and tacos.
But one thing is consistent across their local culinary enterprise, from the Providence mainstay Kabob and Curry to the newest, Garden City Center’s Chaska: They’re paying more for their supplies. In some cases, a lot more.
“It’s a total mess,” Sanjiv Dhar said.
Protein prices are “atrocious.” Lamb loins and lamb racks have gone up significantly. Seafood is no picnic, either. Spare ribs are tender to eat but tough to get. And chicken breast is “all over the place.”
For restaurateurs like the Dhars, it’s a common story, one playing out around Rhode Island and the country: Supply chain problems are throwing deliveries into disarray and sending prices skyrocketing. Ports in California are facing bottlenecks. Suppliers and trucking companies are facing labor shortages. The demand shocks of COVID-19′s early waves are giving way to the supply shocks a year and a half in.
“It’s not the best time to operate a restaurant,” said Jongsung Kim, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Bryant University.
Combined with increases in their own labor costs, profit margins are being sliced perilously slim in the industry, which is a huge part of the state’s economy.
“Rhode Island’s economy can’t recover until Rhode Island’s hospitality industry recovers,” said Sarah Bratko, the lobbyist for the trade group Rhode Island Hospitality Association.
Pre-pandemic, about 87,000 people worked in the hospitality industry in Rhode Island, about 15 percent of the state’s workforce, according to Bratko. It accounted for about $292 million in revenue from sales, meals, beverage and hotels tax.
Consumers, meanwhile, should expect to see higher prices and fewer options at restaurants in the months ahead, if they haven’t noticed it already. Restaurant owners and managers interviewed for this story reported running out of supplies and raising prices on at least some of what they’ve been able to keep in stock.
According to a recent survey with the National Restaurant Association, 87 percent of Rhode Island restaurant operators said their food costs are higher now than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. And 95 percent of operators said they’ve faced shortages of key food and beverage items during the last few months. The supply chain has been straining since the beginning of the pandemic; in the past six months or so, the problem has only gotten worse.
“It has been an absolute nightmare,” said Tiffany Ting, owner of Hometown Poke in Providence. “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”
The shortages have prompted two-hour drives to a different wholesaler because the normal suppliers are out. Ting will do whatever she can to not run out of particular ingredients. The poke bowls come with an array of toppings and ingredients to choose from, so it’s a tough challenge to keep up with everything. And right now, despite Ting’s best efforts, they’re out of wasabi.
“Just asking for patience and understanding for our customers is important,” Ting said.
It’s not just the small and relatively new places struggling, but the larger and longer-tenured local chains. At some of the seafood restaurants that are part of the Newport Restaurant Group, crab meat prices were so high they had to stop selling crab cakes.
“It’s like an Italian restaurant not having meatballs,” said Ken Cusson, the group’s director of business development.
The problem is more than just food: Even things like takeout containers, straws and insulating foam for walk-in coolers are in short supply.
“If you have a refrigerator that breaks down,” Cusson said, “good luck trying to replace it.”
To Douglas Stuchel, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University, it’s a problem that’s been building for a century as the food supply chain got less and less local.
There’s a way out of it. It’s the local and regional way, said Stuchel, who also runs a duck egg farm, Doug’s Ducks, in West Greenwich.
“I don’t want to say it’s too late, but like everything else, like with global warming, we have to start acting now to solve problems,” Stuchel said.
The problems are very real. At Gregg’s, a Rhode Island mainstay with four locations around the state, they’ve had problems with chicken wings and onion rings and graham cracker crumbs for cheesecakes. Next year they’re expecting to spend $40,000 more on french fries than they ever have before. Three to 4 percent of that is an increase in the cost of the fry; the rest is the extra cost for freight.
The problems, owner Bob Bacon said, are multifaceted. In some cases suppliers have said they don’t have people to work in the plants, or to unload the trucks. They have had to increase menu prices slightly, and Bacon said he’s trying to hold the line.
What’s coming next could be even more of a frenzy, and it could lead to some pretty funky economics: That’s the holiday season, when Gregg’s will sell an “extreme” amount of cakes and pies.
You can pre-order them weeks in advance at a certain price. By the time Gregg’s makes them, the prices could go up. Gregg’s will honor those prices, even as they dig into their margins. In other words: Buy low, eat high.
“It’s things like that that take effort each day,” Bacon said.
Bacon said the challenges in the industry have been around since the pandemic started, but recent times have been even more difficult.
That difficulty is all Julia Broome has ever known in this business. The owner of the popular new spot Kin Southern Table and Bar in Providence, Broome opened in March. Yes, she’s dealt with increasing prices and supply shortages. Since March, that’s been normal, for her and many other restaurants.
“It’s not a fun normal,” she hastened to add with a laugh via telephone, the din of her busy restaurant in the background. “It definitely doesn’t make it easy.”