Omicron shove, inclement weather result in empty grocery store shelves


Portions of the produce aisle at the Giant grocery store at 10400 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda were empty Thursday.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and with an increase in cases due to the Omicron variant, Montgomery County business owners are struggling to make ends meet despite supply chain bottlenecks.

The inability to get some products has resulted in reduced inventory levels for some business owners. Others had to find alternative solutions.

Silver Spring-based Moorenko’s Ice Cream typically sees rising dairy costs starting in mid-October and during the holiday season, owner Susan Soorenko told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday.

“Milk fat is important to the ice cream business, so when the price of butter goes up, so does the price of the milk mix we use. So that was normal, but there is no normal right now,” she said.

Soorenko said her supplier informed her earlier this week that the price of dairy products had become so volatile that it could change from week to week.

“Typically, a change takes six months or a year. I’ve never had a letter saying you never know what you’re paying for your milk mix,” she said.

Soorenko, who founded Moorenko 20 years ago, said market uncertainty is stressful, although things aren’t quite as bad as they were earlier in the pandemic.

“In the beginning, when the whole supply chain thing went haywire, we couldn’t get any fruit. I went everywhere to find mangoes and raspberries and stuff that we usually pick up at the restaurant warehouse,” she said.

Still, Soorenko said raising their prices can be problematic, especially during the winter months when business is poor.

“People won’t notice in May if you raise your prices by 10 or 15 cents. But they’ll realize it in January because they don’t go out for ice cream that often,” she said.

Soorenko said the price of packaging has also gone up, and she’s struggled to find trays made from eco-friendly materials in recent months.

“It drives my employees insane because they don’t understand it,” she said. “They just think I’m randomly ordering materials. And it drives customers crazy because they don’t see consistency. It’s not like the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Oh, there’s problems in the supply chain, so she had to get that.’”

Omar Lazo, the owner of Wheaton’s Los Chorros restaurant and president of the Montgomery County Latino Restaurant Association, told Bethesda Beat Wednesday that one of the products he’s had a hard time finding is paper straws.

“We can’t buy them from our dealers,” he said. “We bought straws from Amazon. You can find someone else who has these straws, but you pay a premium for them.”

Lazo said he and the restaurant owners he knows have experienced rising costs for proteins, making main courses like fajitas more expensive to produce.

Before the pandemic, Lazo said, beefsteak cost $4.80 a pound. It rose to $12 a pound at some point during the pandemic but more recently fell to $9.60 a pound, he said.

Restaurateurs, he said, have a few ways to deal with the problem, including downsizing menus, raising prices and reducing portion sizes.

“The problem is that you often can’t just raise your prices unless you change your menus,” he said.

Lazo, a candidate in this year’s county council race, said it could cost as much as $1,000 to reprint paper menus for a restaurant. Instead, many choose to only use digital menus, where customers scan a QR code on their mobile device.

Lazo added that the supply chain issues and the pandemic are adding challenges to what is usually a slow winter season for the restaurant industry. The recent snowstorms caused people to stock up on groceries at home for a week, taking away any incentive for customers to eat out, he said.

“We know when snow comes it affects our bottom line. Regardless of whether it’s really bad, people will buy food and then stop eating out,” he said.

Recent shortages in the grocery store supply chain have been caused by a variety of factors, including a spate of COVID-19 cases among grocery store workers, a general labor shortage and severe weather that has complicated transportation. NPR reported Wednesday.

Additionally, This was reported by USA Today on Wednesday that about 15% of groceries are sold out in the United States, compared to the normal rate of 5% to 10%, according to Geoff Freeman, president of the Consumer Brands Association.

This month, residents of the county posted on social media that grocery chains like Giant, Harris Teeter and Trader Joe’s are running out of products like produce, meat and dairy.

In a statement to Bethesda Beat, Giant Food wrote that the pandemic and last week’s winter weather have “continued to take a toll on our supply chain, but our Giant teams are working with our manufacturing partners to restock shelves as quickly as possible.”

“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our store teams, sales associates and delivery partners have done everything possible to continue to serve to the best of their ability,” the statement said.

A spokesman for Trader Joe could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Thursday.

Inventory was a challenge for Nick Griffin, the owner of Griffin Cycle in Bethesda.

Griffin told Bethesda Beat Wednesday that when the pandemic began in March 2020, bike shops were considered essential Maryland shops and were allowed to remain open. The bike business was booming back then, he says.

“So basically all manufacturers’ stocks were sold out within three months. And that’s unprecedented in our industry,” he said.

Griffin said he then started ordering bikes from his supplier, Wisconsin-based Trek. At one point, the store had a backorder of more than 2,000 bikes, he said.

“They’ve just kind of trickled in for the last year and a half,” he said. “So part of the bike industry’s supply chain problem is that the manufacturers couldn’t get all the parts they needed for the bikes because there was, and still is, such a high demand. So that was another delay.”

Griffin said the backorders are finally being filled. His shop stocks 360 bikes. Normally, the store would have fewer bikes but a bigger selection, he said.

Griffin said prices at his store are up about 25% from pre-pandemic levels, partly due to increased shipping costs. But business remained strong into 2021, he said.

“We have more [bikes] than we want, but we’re just waiting for inventory to level out,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at [email protected]


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