LONG BEACH PENINSULA — Just as restaurants on the peninsula were given the greenlight to open their doors for sit-down service, a new type of epidemic struck the dining community: an unstable meat supply.
With the covid-19 pandemic forcing restaurants to close, either temporarily or permanently in some cases, and outbreaks hitting large meat-processing plants throughout the country, restaurateurs saw the price of meats considered staples of the American diet — such as beef, pork and chicken — soar.
Prices now leveling out
The increase in beef prices peaked, for now at least, in mid-to-late May, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Choice cutout prices, representing the composite price of all choice beef cuts produced by a finished animal, soared to over $450, more than double the price of about $210 in the first two months of the year. It has since dropped to about $240, as of June 12.
Ted Keys, territory manager for the food-service distributor US Foods, said pork and bacon prices have come down close to where they were pre-covid-19, under $2 per pound. Some beef prices are slowly coming back down to Earth and are now about $4 per pound, after reaching a peak of more than $6 per pound. As time goes on, Keys said he expects the price for proteins to begin to stabilize.
Keys said the reports he’s seen about there being widespread meat shortages in the country are inaccurate, and that he’s surprised that there haven’t been more shortages. When the covid-19 pandemic became real in the U.S. and many restaurants closed down, Keys said US Foods had hundreds of millions of dollars worth of product going into freezers.
“All of that fresh protein now had to go to freezers. Restaurants weren’t used to that, so there was a changing moment for them to be able to realize that ‘Wow, OK, if I want to pay the same prices that I was paying, I need to now go to a frozen product,’” said Keys. “The price point is what is a little bit challenging for a lot of restaurants, because they price their menu based on what they’re paying at the market.”
About 80% of the peninsula’s dining establishments are served by US Foods, Keys estimates, with those restaurants having to pay higher prices the last four to six weeks because available product was in such high demand. That high demand, he said, was due to the fact that the summer season had begun, starting with Memorial Day weekend.
Trying to cope
The market’s recent uncertainty has thrown a wrench into an already tenuous situation for the area’s dining establishments, which rely on heavy summer volume to make up for the less financially fruitful off-season.
Nancy Gorshe, co-owner of The Depot Restaurant in Seaview, reiterated what Keys said about increased prices for their proteins, like steak, pork and crab. The increases ranged anywhere from 10 to 20%. That price increase is then passed on to customers.
“We hope our customers don’t notice it that much, but they did notice the first price increase,” Gorshe said.
David Allen, owner of Beach Fire BBQ in Long Beach, said earlier this month that the instability of meat prices is the reason why Beach Fire BBQ hasn’t been able to reopen yet. Pork and chicken prices were dropping, he said, but beef prices were almost double what they were prior to the pandemic. Other establishments on the peninsula have also struggled to receive shipments of some meats over the past several weeks, including steak and bacon.
The market’s recent turbulence and fluctuating costs has forced The Depot to get creative in the types of cuts it offers.
“We’re learning about new cuts that we haven’t been using,” said Gorshe, adding that they haven’t received any complaints or concerns from customers about quality. “That’s been helpful for [US Foods] to say, ‘This particular lamb shoulder is still a really good meat,’ but people don’t tend to think of lamb shoulder, they think of lamb shank or lamb chop. So we’ve been taking their advice and using these cuts.”
The instability has also forced The Depot to stay with a limited menu for its dine-in option that is now available. The dine-in menu is the same as the restaurant’s takeout menu, which consists of about 14 small plates or entrees. According to Gorshe, the simpler menu is needed because some of the items on their typical or special menus are tough to find at reasonable prices, like lamb or quail, and in order to keep things easy for kitchen staff.
“We hope that by fall, when we normally would go to change our menu, that there will be an evening out and growth of availability of product, at which point we hope to bring back a more full, traditional menu. But I think we’ll go through summer like this,” Gorshe said.