Remember back to the end of February/beginning of March when our world began to shut down and we were scrambling for supplies to stock up for quarantine life? It wasn’t just hand sanitizer, bottled water, and toilet paper we couldn’t find. It was pasta and rice, chicken and beans.
We were never going to run out of food per se but six months later it seems we’re still dealing with some empty shelves or at least the disappearance of ingredients we’ve long taken for granted. And it’s not just in New York or L.A. It’s across the country. I asked participants in our Facebook group if they’re still dealing with this and got a grocery list of missing ingredients that are surprising in their variety:
- Russell J. Earls in Orlando, Florida said he can’t find staples like sugar, flour, and basic simple ingredients.
- LS Owens in San Francisco is missing herbs, bacon, ground beef, and tuna. She said cuts of meats come and go.
- Carol Borchardt in Tennessee can’t get soy sauce or tomato products.
- Lynette Nieman of Charlotte, North Carolina went to whole foods and needed frozen chopped spinach for a dish. “Their frozen vegetable section was basically empty,” she said.
- Daun Pullem in Central Valley in California exclaimed, “Yeast! Bread flour, proteins have gotten extremely expensive here.”
- Jackie Alejo, who lives in Tennessee, can’t find regular all-purpose flour, although at a high price point, she can find self-rising flour. She can’t find cornmeal or buttermilk for baking.
- Bill Collins in Western Massachusetts can’t find distilled and red wine vinegar.
- Jenny Elmes of Virginia can’t find quinoa or Dukes mayonnaise.
- No cornstarch for Sebastian Münkwitz in New York City.
- Low quantities and low varieties of rice are a problem for Evangeline Kochanek in San Diego.
- The pasta aisle is thin for both Erin Tripp and John Pastor in Southern California.
- Tira Collins of Naperville, Illinois can’t find cornstarch, bread, or OO flour.
And, adding to the pain, are increased prices. Tiffany Long Bowers in Weare, New Hampshire complained, “Prices going up has also caused issue[s],” she said. “Still having trouble finding items but cost of all is hurting.”
Your pain seems to be universal. According to The Wall Street Journal, roughly 10 percent of grocery items remain out of stock. So, what’s going on and will things return to pre-pandemic normal?
Here are some answers. According to an August 10, 2020 report by SupplyChain Management Review, government-imposed stay-at-home orders drastically increased the amount of food and household products we consume at home. No surprise there. But while panic buying was a thing initially, it was the transition from commercial to retail channels that have caused challenges to manufacturers.
Spaghetti is an example. According to Supplychain Management Review, “When restaurant dining options diminished because of the pandemic, households began preparing more meals at home; spaghetti became abundantly popular. Spaghetti was also subject to brief panic buying and sustained stockouts; there was a brief pause before replenishment. The supply recovery for spaghetti took about five weeks.” They point out that large-scale retail pasta producers are typically multi-channel suppliers who faced the collapse of foodservice industry demand. So pasta suppliers had to change their packaging from commercial to retail. Then restaurants started opening again toward the end of May and demand increased commercially, even as home-based spaghetti consumption stayed high.
For commodity baking products–flour, yeast, sugar, cornstarch, cornmeal, etc.–commercial baking has remained high and home baking simultaneously increased. The failure to find yeast has been a common complaint. If you’re Fleishmann’s you’re supplying commercial and retail customers–and even beer manufacturers. Fleishmann’s may be a full capacity and still you may not be able to find yeast at your local market.
Another issue, pointed to by the Journal story is that as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in certain states, grocers are reporting a new increase in staples purchases–like baking ingredients–that could lead to empty shelves.
And, unless you’ve been sleeping under the proverbial rock, you know that meat processing plants have been facing multiple challenges in maintaining full capacity–leading to scarcity in some regions as well as higher prices.
According to MyRecipes, “canned vegetables, another category that’s had a hard time keeping up with early-pandemic supply surges, are only available at 80 percent.”
In tandem with this need to super produce staples, the production and distribution of the variety of products we’re using to having at our whim are being cut back. AllRecipes reported in July 2020 that multiple major food and drink brands have made the strategic decision for now to pull back breadth to focus on what sells. PepsiCo, for instance, acknowledged that it has stopped manufacturing a full 20 percent of its products during the pandemic.
Will this change after the pandemic? Maybe not. Basics will likely not be at issue but variety will. Food Dive reported in July 2020 that food companies are not so much averse to giving shoppers a choice but rationalizing that consolidating production around fewer SKUs (stock-keeping units) would lead to more efficient supply chains. The opinion among analysts is that product categories are “overloaded with multiple brands, product sizes, flavors, or other attributes.” And retailers just don’t want to stock on less profitable or slower-selling items to bolster their profitability once the retail environment becomes more predictable.
The era of “more is more” grocery choices may have ended in February 2020.
Chefs, what ingredients are you having a hard time finding? How are you making do?
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