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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What do your pantry and freezer look like? Back in March when the country began to shelter in place and we were discovering empty shelves for the first time, it was clear hoarding was on. Beans, rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, frozen pizza, chicken–gone. All of a sudden it felt like we were living in the 1970s Soviet Union.

Supply chains have been struggling so it’s no surprise that in May we’re still finding some empty shelves–or being told to limit our purchases of beef or tomato sauce or eggs. But it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening in the kitchens of America when you’re stuck in your own kitchen.

So, it was fascinating to read this article in Axios last week, called The Quarantine Diet. I thought I’d share with you some of their findings.

For one thing, all those food and nutrition trends we were anticipating for 2020? Things like the rise of plant-based meat substitutes, low-alcohol/no-alcohol drinks, and organic or sustainable products? See ya!

Instead, customers are purchasing historic amounts of frozen foods–from pizza to vegetables to entrées. Same with canned and processed foods. According to The New York Times, food sales at General Mills and Campbell Soup rose more than 60 percent in the four weeks that ended April 4. Consumer data company Nielsen also noted that Kraft Heinz, Kellogg, Flower Foods, and others had increases of 37 to 50 percent. This comes after a downward sales trend for soups and other canned foods as consumers began to favor fresh produce and other more nutritious options. Now people are stocking up–what the food industry calls “pantry-loading.”

Another option being revived for those who can afford it are meal kits, like those from Blue Apron and Home Chef. But it’s not just dedicated meal kit companies. Restaurants are getting into the act as well. Chains like Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A are introducing their own meal kits along with Denny’s, Panera, and Just Salad. Panera, like many neighborhood restaurants, is also adding groceries for sale. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. customers spent around $100 million on meal kits at retail stores in the month ending April 11. That’s nearly double from the same period the prior year.

And good-bye to the sober-curious. Meet the bored and the anxious (dare you look in the mirror?). They’re driving up liquor sales. Think “quarantinis” and Corona beers (too on point for me). Apparently, the rise in drinking corresponds to the same instincts driving up to childhood comfort food favorites. And dairy is making a comeback. Ice cream. Cheese. Butter. These complete proteins calm us and comfort us.

Axios pointed to several trends to watch. Faux meats are heading south, thanks to the pandemic, which Suzy Badaracco, Culinary Tides consultancy CEO Suzy Badaracco forecasts will continue. According to Badaracco, despite a national meat shortage, people will seek out alternative sources of protein, like legumes, rather than imitation burgers. Vegetarians will celebrate plants being plants even as meat eaters will return to animal proteins at an accelerated pace.

And, sadly, “sustainability sales,” which include organic foods, will continue to decelerate. Badaracco attributes this to cost, not desire.

What food and beverage trends have you noticed in your region? Do these trends sound familiar to you?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership. 

And if you are a member and have a special talent or point of view to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

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