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Columbia-area restaurants deal with food supply issues

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Ribs, pickles and pickled red onions from City Limits Q.

To Robbie Robinson, barbecue is an art, an art he needs the highest quality meat to create.

With his City Limits Q truck, which posts up around the Columbia area, he wants to work only with U.S Department of Agriculture-certified Prime grade beef — a sign that the marbling (or fat content interspersed with the meat) is abundant. That’s the top grading level for beef, besting the others, which are Choice and Select.

Acquiring the kind of meat he needs has been troublesome as of late. With the coronavirus pandemic slowing production at meat plants, the availability and price of some meat products, along with the overall food, has been affected.

“If the prices go up anymore, I can’t keep on buying it,” Robinson tells Free Times. “I actually bought three weeks worth of several cases of brisket [recently], because I knew there would be scarcity issues and the price was fairly decent.”

The issues Robinson and others are experiencing are in part to an imbalance in the food supply chain, explains Mark Ferguson, the management science chair at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. Many food suppliers may typically only serve restaurants, but once the pandemic began to temporarily close restaurants, some shifted to consumer sales through groceries.

Now that restaurants are reopening, it will take time for things to adapt back, Ferguson explains, but he says that’s a demand issue, and it’s a separate issue from supply concerns, which are also real, as COVID-19 has slowed production.

For City Limits, Robinson typically uses one of four wholesalers — commercial suppliers US Foods or SYSCO, and large grocers Sam’s Club or Costco. He says price fluctuations have varied. In one case, brisket came at twice the usual price.

Robinson explains that resorting to different quality products could affect his ability to get the products to “perform” — his term for the cooked product turning out the way he prefers.

And true to his artisan ethos, if the meat doesn’t perform, the customer doesn’t get it. Robinson says he isn’t shy about throwing it out if a slice of not-so-fatty brisket doesn’t meet his standards.

That was a worry last weekend, when he was using a mix of Prime and Choice meat, both with a Certified Angus Beef designation, and standard Prime. He prefers that designation, which supposedly indicates better, more even marbling than with non-CAB beef, but Robinson still wondered how the Choice brisket would perform the week leading up to his food service.

“We’re trying to put the best bite possible on people’s plate, that’s our goal, and when I know the bite is not anywhere close to that, that’s not what we do. That’s not our schtick at all,” he says. “People are paying a premium price for a premium product.”

USC’s Ferguson says that difficulties at meat plants mean chefs will continue to have trouble getting the exact products they’re after. Such operations are typically well balanced in non-pandemic times, with a relatively small number providing the country’s supply. The plants are difficult to social distance in, he explains. Outbreaks have hamstrung some, and concerns over worker safety have run rampant in recent weeks. To compensate, they may be less likely to break down meats, like a whole chicken, into specific parts.

“There’s more trouble finding workers or trying to put in greater [social] distances,” Ferguson offers. “It becomes more difficult to cater to those specific demands.”

He goes on to say that disruptions in the supply chain for protective equipment could also impact production, causing further issues.

The pandemic could also limit the seasonal workforce that largely comes from Mexico and Central American countries to work in produce fields. If they’re less likely to come to America due to immigration restrictions or general concerns over the virus, it could lead to shortages.

One potential solution for restaurants could be relying more on local providers, but that means higher prices, as these suppliers don’t work at the scale of mass producers, Robinson says.

“Restaurants are already in a particularly dire financial situation,” he posits. “So it’s even more challenging for them to pay for their supply, especially when they’re limited in their demand by the social distancing.”

The issue is more pronounced at the restaurant and commercial level, but Ferguson says that doesn’t mean it isn’t being seen at the consumer level. And some grocery stores have limited their goods in response to the issue. Food Lion has placed two-item limits on certain goods — paper products, fresh meat and eggs.

“We are in daily contact with our vendors and suppliers and are working with them in the most efficient way possible to get product into our stores and onto our shelves to serve our neighbors who are counting on us during this unprecedented time of need,” reads a statement from the chain. “We have implemented some purchase limits on these higher-demand product categories, and continue to work tirelessly with both existing and new suppliers to ensure our customers have the items they need to nourish and care for their families.”

Food Lion and Robinson’s City Limits Q are far from the only businesses dealing with the volatile food supply. Fellow barbecue business Phat Boi Grillz, a small private event caterer that works in Columbia, Greenville and places in-between, stockpiled product once murmurs of potential issues arose.

“I kind of caught it before it started happening,” owner Johnny Jenkins shares. “When I saw how everything was coming to a shortage, I was like, ‘Yo we need to go get this meat right now.’”

And the Lexington restaurant Libby’s has experienced issues getting top round beef, which it uses for its Philly sandwich, general manager Lisa Wehunt says. It’s had to take the sandwich and another wrap off the menu temporarily.

Jenkins says he is dealing with some product inconsistencies. For instance, the turkey wings he sells are bigger than usual. Robinson reports his chicken wings have likewise been abnormally large.

That’s resulted in minor headaches in trying to decide how to shift prices and quantities, the City Limits chef explains. Instead of giving out seven or eight wings for $10, does he instead give five at that same price and bank on customers understanding? For the moment, he doesn’t have much choice.

“With these suppliers, providing me different products that I’ve never used before at the last minute, we just got to go with it,” he says.

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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