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The GW Hatchet


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Supply chain shortages inflate prices, drain inventories at local restaurants

Grace Hromin | Senior Photo Editor
Tonic’s managing partner said they took crab off the menu after the price from suppliers more than tripled.

On-campus restaurants are facing product and labor shortages as the Omicron variant upsets the world’s supply chain, sending the costs of some items soaring.

A half dozen restaurant managers said labor shortages in the supply chain are minimizing menu item availability, inflating prices and limiting ingredient inventory. They said the shortages are the latest speed bump in what has been a difficult two years for restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

Jeremy Pollok, the managing partner of Tonic and a GW alumnus, said obtaining biodegradable straws, beers and signature menu items – like crab and chicken wings – has become more difficult and taken more time because of supply chain issues. He said even if items are easily accessible, Tonic has struggled to make sales at the same reasonable prices because of inflation.

“Certain beers we haven’t gotten in months, so it’s a little bit all over the place,” Pollok said in an interview. “Some things you just can’t get, and some things are just so expensive that you have to choose not to.”

Pollok said steeper costs have forced the restaurant to decide between increasing and maintaining prices on many items, which could dramatically cut margins into their profit during a challenging time for restaurants facing staff and item shortages. Experts have said weather and COVID-19 related labor shortages are to blame for shortfalls in grocery availability in D.C. and across the country.

“You try to avoid passing that on as much as you can to the guest, but sometimes you just have to raise the prices on certain things,” Pollok said.

He said most customers are understanding of the shortages and often don’t mind choosing other items from the menu. He said the supply chain problems could begin to slightly ease once the United States passes the peak of cases caused by the Omicron variant, which public health experts expect to arrive in the next four to six weeks.

“But I said that in 2020,” he said. “So in a way, it’s a little freeing because there’s not a damn thing you can do about it except manage it on a day-to-day basis, or week-to-week, or month-to-month.”

Luis Reyes, the general manager of Roti Modern Mediterranean, noticed the start of product shortages in June and July and said the vendor for the restaurant’s supplies is responsible for periodic unavailability of menu items. Reyes said Roti is facing an unusual shortage of protein that the restaurant uses in vegan meals, which are central to its menu and popular among students.

“Since that one has a lot of labor and raw materials combined, most of the time it will be one of the ones that when it’s out, it’s out,” Reyes said. “And it will take sometimes a couple of weeks – sometimes a month – to get it back.”

Reyes said as Roti loses customers because some menu items are unavailable, he struggles telling customers that the restaurant is out of stock of the meal they want. He said even the smallest recurring drop in patronage can be a significant loss for the business.

“If you take into consideration if we lose five to six customers a week, that hurts,” he said. “Imagine how we will be at a month, at six months, at a year from now, so the impact is not only on the small business, it will be long term.”

Md Abdul Bhuiyan, the owner and manager of Flavors of India, said his restaurant started experiencing supply and ingredient shortages six months ago, and he doesn’t envision an end in sight. He said the effects of inflation have also severely affected the restaurant’s business.

“It’s not only a shortage – the price is going up,” he said. “They are up, some of the items, 40 to 50 percent.”

Bhuiyan said workers have quit their jobs at record rates recently, which has caused many of the supply chain issues and lowered staffing. He said his complaints are not directly aimed at the government or local workers, but he wants laborers to return to work despite the end of pandemic-era government stimulus.

“No matter if you get money or not, you have to come back for work,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”

Kostas Loi, the district manager of GRK Fresh Greek in District House, said the labor shortage has made it difficult to find enough workers to adequately staff the restaurant. Loi said the University’s pandemic mitigation measures, like remote classes during the first week of the semester and GW’s grab-and-go dining policy, have financially hamstrung his business and reduced the number of potential customers.

“Keeping the door closed to the public, that affects me too,” Loi said. “Business-wise, compared with before COVID, I’m down maybe 70 to 80 percent.”

Faith Wardwell contributed reporting.

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