Baton Rouge restaurants see surge in dining as food distributors face shortages

Diners are making their way back inside their favorite Baton Rouge restaurants in droves as coronavirus restrictions have lifted. But food distributors may not be rebounding fast enough to keep up.

Sales have increased over the past two months compared to November and December, says The Vintage downtown general manager Miguel Rodriguez, attributing the gain to patrons’ willingness to be out and about after vaccination.

BLDG5 owner Brumby Broussard says weekends have been better, too, and even the beginning of the week—typically slow days in the restaurant world—have picked up.

Older customers have been returning to dine in for the past two months, Digiulio Brothers’ co-owner Mike Johnson says, which he somewhat attributes to them being some of the first people eligible for vaccines. They were prepared for the return of customers, Johnson says, but have had to get used to balancing more in-house dining and to-go orders.

Weekend sales at City Pork are getting closer to 2019 numbers, owner Stephen Hightower says. While the restaurant was prepared for the surge of dining in, it has had trouble hiring workers, Hightower says.

The local return to dining out mirrors trends seen across the country, according to The Washington Postbut so, too, do the supply chain issues. The food sector is seeing a version of what supply-chain experts call the bullwhip effect, where companies that have pulled back their operations seek to rapidly scale up on signs of improving demand, leaving suppliers scrambling to keep up, The Wall Street Journal reports. Food suppliers allocated more capacity to retail customers like grocery chains during the pandemic, leaving distributors short of some products as restaurants and food-service operations open back up.

Supply has dropped and prices for food have gone up 30%, says Hightower, who usually sources from local farms for his restaurants. Staples like chicken wings and pork belly are hard to get ahold of, and even everyday items like ketchup and cutlery kits have become more scarce, he says.

While Hightower hasn’t had to raise menu prices yet, he says prices for goods are off the charts.

Paul Spalitta, owner of Louisiana food distributor S&W Wholesale Foods LLC, says he has seen enormous shortages over the past couple of months.

“It’s like I’ve never seen before,” Spalitta says. “We’re facing shortages in almost every category of product we handle.”

The biggest deficits are in proteins like beef, pork, poultry and catfish, which S&W Wholesale gets from a domestic farm.

The root of the issue lies with raw product availability and lack of labor, Spalitta says, which he thinks will continue until unemployment subsides in Louisiana.

Spalitta says the price of soybean oil, often used for deep frying, more than doubled in the last two months. While soybean prices may come down with a new crop in the fall, he doesn’t see many other prices falling.

“We’ve been directly telling restaurants they should raise their prices now,” says Samantha Spalitta, S&W Wholesale communications manager. “We don’t see these prices going down.”

This story originally appeared in a May 21 edition of Daily Report. To keep up with Baton Rouge business and politics, subscribe to the free Daily Report e-newsletter here.