LONG BEACH PENINSULA — Several local restaurants are searching for a new wholesale food supplier after a distributor unexpectedly severed delivery services to the Long Beach Peninsula last week.
“It was completely unexpected,” said North Beach Tavern owner Carla Curtis, one of a handful of peninsula restaurants that depended on US Foods as their primary supplier, but are now faced with finding a new wholesale food source to keep their menu stocked in the heart of the busy season.
“I was told 400 restaurants and bars were dropped in Oregon and Washington and 300 routes were dropped nationwide,” Curtis continued. “It was because of a shortage of truck drivers.”
US Foods, one of the nation’s largest food distributors and regional suppliers, declined comment for this story.
Evolving hospitality landscape
As local restaurants rally to find a new supplier, a trade group and others are attempting to assist them in navigating the changing hospitality landscape.
“We’re all going to try to help the small businesses figure it out,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, representing more than 6,000 members in the hotel and restaurant industry.
“I’m frustrated they didn’t give more notice,” Anton said of the US Foods decision.
The lack of notice by US Foods was among Curtis’s biggest beefs, too.
“A supplier of their size should be able to give notice, ” she said, adding that she only found out after returning a missed call from a regional representative last week.
“I was frustrated for the number of businesses, the restaurants and bars. The man I spoke to at US Foods seemed to be as upset as I was.”
Some warn that the trucking crisis could be a sign of more changes to come.
“I think this is just the first shoe to drop. For announcements coming, I just hope they can give at least a few weeks notice. Two weeks ago I would have said finding cooks is the number one priority, but now it’s finding truckers,” Anton said.
Businesses try to adapt
Curtis officially opened her Long Beach bar and restaurant along Pioneer and Pacific Avenue in 2018, and had been a customer of US Foods for nearly as long. Curtis said they ’inherited’ US Foods as a supplier when their former distributor, Food Services of America (FSA), was acquired by US Foods in 2019.
“We started with Sysco, then went over to FSA. We inherited US Foods. FSA had a lot of products we liked. Like many other restaurants, we do our fair share of running over the bridge to Chef’s Store and Costco. The hardest thing for us to get on the peninsula is good produce.”
Curtis made changes, including adding additional storage, to better accommodate a curtailed distribution schedule that required larger — but less frequent — deliveries. A typical delivery ranged from $500 to $2,000, depending on the needs that week, she said.
“They would deliver to us once a week during the worst of the covid times, which was tough for us [and others on the peninsula] because we don’t have space, but worked it out and [we] added some storage.”
Curtis was content with the once-per-week schedule, had it continued, and was in talks with other businesses to make other delivery accommodations before the route was removed.
“We talked with the Long Beach Merchants Association about establishing a central location where they could deliver for a whole bunch of restaurants, but we were never even given an opportunity to have a discussion with US Foods about how we can make this work. It’s just disappointing,” she said.
Food margins have shrunk for restaurants since the pandemic, and the supply disruption served as another gut-punch for local businesses looking to rebound.
“Meat prices went through the roof and they were extremely hard to get. Sometimes we couldn’t find pepperoni or salami. You never knew which ones were going to be available and which ones weren’t. Every time we went into a store we would check who had what. There were a few weeks that cheese was really tight and the cost tripled. It was really rough on my pizza margins. Prices have come back down a little bit but nowhere near what it was and I don’t know if it ever will. And right now is the busiest time,” Curtis said.
Local supplier provides silver lining
Curtis has since turned to a secondary wholesale food distributor over the past few days to keep the restaurant serving pizza, the most popular item on the menu. Establishing a relationship with a new supplier will take time, Curtis said.
“We knew FSA and were building a relationship with US Foods. Now we’re building a relationship with Northwest Foods in Longview. We’re learning what products are available that we can use or substitute for what we do. You don’t just buy pepperoni, for instance — they’re not all equal. We like a good, spicy pepperoni on our pizza. We need to find something that is close to what we had. It takes time to figure out.”
Relying on a smaller and more locally based supplier has been a silver lining amid the ordeal.
“We were lucky and fortunate we had a back-up supplier that we could reach out to and fall back on,” Curtis said. “I’m sure they’re happy too, to see their business grow while reaching out to the peninsula to help out.”