Crispy, spicy, sticky Korean fried chicken wings – this is the dish that put Mee Ae Wolney’s business on the menu.
Wolney attributes these wings to the fact that they made their food truck Anju a success, which led to their restaurant of the same name in St. Petersburg. These grand pianos are still her best-selling item. But after the price of chicken – and chicken wings in particular – has spiked, Wolney is puzzled: raise their prices or eat much of the cost yourself. Taking the wings off the menu is just not an option.
Other local restaurant owners face the same dilemma.
Over the past year, Wolney has seen the price of chicken wings rise steadily, from $ 1.87 a pound last July to $ 2.12 in the fall of 2020. In December, the price jumped to $ 2.47 Dollar and has continued to rise. Last week, wings at wholesale retailer Restaurant Depot were priced at $ 3.91 a pound – more than double what Wolney paid before the pandemic.
It’s not the only staple that has seen a staggering price hike: frying oil – instrumental in the making of Wolney’s hand-flapped wings and their popular boneless “K-Pops” – rose from $ 18 per pitcher in the spring of 2020 to $ 43.95 this week at the Sanwa Farmer’s Market in Tampa.
“It’s crazy,” said Wolney. âThat’s why some eateries have decided to stop selling grand pianos – they don’t want to charge $ 20 for a plate. But there is no way I can take wings from my menu – we are basically known for that. “
After holding out for several months, Wolney raised their prices. An order for six jumbo-sized chicken wings is now $ 15 instead of $ 13. That price has caused some sticker shock to customers, but between labor costs, rent and utility overheads, extra ingredients, and third-party commission fees, Wolney said their margins are still shrinking. She can’t imagine customers wanting to spend more on a plate of wings, so her business – for now – has to weather the void.
With price increases and shortages commonly reported in high-demand groceries, business owners are forced to pass the costs on to customers or sweat the margin crisis. The price increases include proteins like chicken, beef and seafood, but also mayonnaise, spirits like Crown Royal whiskey and some vodkas, specialty wines and harder-to-find international ingredients.
Like Wolney, many restaurant owners buy from food giants like US Foods and Sysco or from smaller, local outlets, and prices vary based on a restaurant’s purchasing power and its relationship with its retailer.
Food prices fluctuate regularly, but the current spike points to production delays and labor shortages due to the pandemic, said Robert Hooker, associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Monica Wooden Center for Supply Chain Management and Sustainability.
At the start of the pandemic, a sudden stop in shopping from restaurants and hospitality giants resulted in products being thrown away and some animals prematurely slaughtered as farmers and food manufacturers faced unprecedented supply overnight with near-zero demand. Now the opposite is true, as restaurants across the country face a surge in business from newly vaccinated diners eager to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyle.
“We have this weird bullwhip effect going on in the supply chain right now,” Hooker said. âOur food supply is not designed to really deal with pandemics and crises of this kind. After the pandemic, people are asking for different things and they are not asking for the same amount. “
Rising petrol prices and a persistent shortage of long-distance drivers are also partly responsible for the price jumps. And now farmers and processors are faced with a new dilemma: there is a lack of labor as agricultural workers, in processing, packaging and transport positions.
Hooker said he didn’t know when prices might start leveling out, but consumers could expect the current spikes to go up and down for a while as the pandemic develops.
Joe Dodd, who owns the Nashville-style fried chicken restaurant King of the Coop in Wesley Chapel and Seminole Heights, said the price hike on key items, including chicken and mayonnaise, has been “exponential.” He dropped the Mississippi catfish he had once got off his menu because the catfish farm in question couldn’t find workers to harvest the fish.
In the meantime, Dodd said, his team is considering how to optimize and bundle menu items to offset the cost of in-house diners. They’ve already increased the prices of items specifically ordered through third-party delivery apps like Uber Eats, as the services charge restaurants up to 30 percent in commission fees.
Figuring out how to educate customers about the difference between the perceived value of a dish and the real cost of the restaurant owner can be tricky, Dodd said.
“You look at something like a chicken tender and think, ‘Oh, it’s just a chicken tender,'” Dodd said. âBut you can’t pay someone $ 15 an hour when your costs are up 30 percent and people aren’t willing to pay for a chicken deal. You’re not buying a chicken tender – you’re buying the value of the people who make it. “
Restaurants that rely on international gourmet ingredients are finding that shipments stuck on barges overseas are often left behind for weeks, sometimes months, and that once products arrive, the cost is much higher.
At Fado, a new Portuguese restaurant in St. Petersburg, owner Sandra Andrade said she saw the price of two of her signature proteins skyrocket: squid and salted cod. Andrade and her husband source their seafood and wines directly from Portugal.
“It’s like a snowball effect,” said Andrade. “The people weren’t working, so they couldn’t produce anything, and now that everything is working again, prices are rising.”
The wholesale cost of octopus has increased by $ 3 a pound, Andrade said. To fill the gap, they are increasing the menu price from around $ 33 to $ 40 per plate. As a new restaurant still looking for customers, they can’t afford any more price hikes, Andrade said, fearing it might alienate diners.
“It wouldn’t look good for business,” said Andrade. “For some items we have to accept the loss and wait and see how it looks in a year.”
In Gangchu in Seminole Heights, owner Noel Cruz said that sourcing specialty liquors like Japanese sake and Korean soju had become increasingly difficult, which he attributed to fewer shipping containers making overseas trips. The same goes for perilla leaves – an aniseed-scented herb often used in Asian cuisine – and other niche products.
“When they go out, they run out,” said Cruz. “It’s not that you can switch to another provider.”
As with Anju in St. Petersburg, Gangchu’s focus is on Korean fried chicken. Cruz said his team had decided to cover the cost of the chicken price hikes for now and hopes the surge doesn’t last too long.
“There’s a little roller coaster ride (effect),” he said. We don’t want to raise prices unless it’s just insurmountable costs. “