2022 | Business

Omicron surge, inclement weather lead to bare grocery store shelves

Montgomery County businesses still grappling with supply chain shortage

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Parts of the produce section in the Giant grocery store at 10400 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda were bare on Thursday.

Photo by Dan Schere

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and with cases surging due to the omicron variant, Montgomery County business owners are trying to make do despite supply chain shortages.

The inability to get some products has meant less inventory for some business owners. Others have had to find alternative solutions.

Moorenko’s Ice Cream, based in Silver Spring, typically see increases in the cost of dairy products starting in mid-October, and running through the holiday season, owner Susan Soorenko told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday.

“Milkfat is important to the ice cream business, so if the price of butter goes up, then the price of the dairy mixture that we use will go up. So that’s been normal, but there is no normal right now,” she said.

Soorenko said that earlier this week, her supplier informed her that the price of dairy products has become so volatile that it may change week to week.

“Usually if they make a change, it’s a change that lasts for six months or a year. I’ve never gotten a letter that said you won’t know at any given point what you’re paying for your dairy mixture,” she said.

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

“Initially, when the whole supply chain thing went crazy, we couldn’t get fruit. I was going everywhere to find mango and raspberries, and stuff that we normally pick up at the restaurant warehouse,” she said.

Still, Soorenko said having to raise her prices can be problematic, particularly during the winter months, when business is slow.

“People aren’t gonna notice in May if you bump your prices 10 or 15 cents. But they’re gonna notice it in January, because they’re not going out for ice cream all that often,” she said.

Soorenko said the price of packaging has also gone up, and she’s had a difficult time in the past couple of months finding bowls made of environmentally friendly materials.

“It makes my staff crazy, because they don’t understand this,” she said “They just think I’m being random about ordering materials. And it makes the customers crazy, because they’re not seeing consistency. It’s not like the first thing that occurs to them is ‘oh, there are supply chain issues, so she had to get this.’”

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

“We can’t buy them from our distributors,” he said. “We resorted to buying straws from Amazon. You can find somebody from somewhere else that has these straws, but you’re gonna pay a premium for them.”

Lazo said he and the restaurant owners he knows have experienced rising costs of proteins, which makes it more expensive to make staple entrees such as fajitas.

Before the pandemic, Lazo said, the cost of beefsteak was $4.80 per pound. At one point during the pandemic, it shot up to $12 per pound, but more recently dropped to $9.60 per pound, he said.

Restaurateurs, he said, have a few options to deal with the problem, which include downsizing the menu, raising prices and reducing portion sizes.

“The problem is, a lot of times you 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 can cost as much as $1,000 to reprint paper menus for a restaurant. Instead, many are electing to only use digital menus, in which customers scan a QR code on their mobile device.

Lazo added that the supply chain problems and the pandemic are added challenges to what is normally a slow winter season for the restaurant industry. The recent snowstorms caused people to stock up on food at home for a week, removing any incentive for customers to dine out, he said.

“We know when snow comes, it’s gonna affect our bottom line. Regardless of whether it’s really bad, people will go and buy food and then stop going out to eat,” he said.

Recent supply chain shortages in grocery stores have been caused by a variety of factors, including a rash of COVID-19 cases among grocery store workers, an overall labor shortage and severe weather that has made transportation difficult, NPR reported on Wednesday.

Additionally, USA Today reported on Wednesday that around 15% of grocery items in the United States are out of stock, compared to the normal rate of 5% to 10%, according to Geoff Freeman, the president of the trade association Consumer Brands Association.

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

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

“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our store teams, distribution associates, and delivery partners have gone above and beyond to continue to service to the best of our ability,” the statement read.

A Trader Joe’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment on Tuesday or Thursday.

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

Griffin told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that when the pandemic began in March 2020, bike shops were deemed essential businesses in Maryland and were permitted to stay open. The bike business boomed at the time, he said.

“So, basically, in three months, all manufacturers’ inventories that they had on hand sold out. And that’s never happened before in our industry,” he said.

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

“Over the last year and a half, they’ve just been trickling in,” he said. “So, part of the supply chain problem with the bicycle industry is, because there was such huge demand, and still continues to be huge demand, the manufacturers couldn’t get all the parts they needed for the bikes. So, that was another delay.”

Griffin said the back orders are finally being filled. His shop has 360 bikes in stock. Normally, the shop would have fewer bikes, but it would include a greater selection, he said.

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

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

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com