Have you ever felt that we live in some kind of transmission belt with a strange time loop? Like, we thought we’d already lived through a period of grocery shortages for the coronavirus pandemic, but here we are again, standing in the grocery store, this time with our N95 masks, staring at bare shelves, wondering what we’re going to cook when half the things on our list are out of stock.
Imagine you are a restaurant owner.
It’s not just about trying to swap ingredients; They try – and still do – to keep their business afloat, and delight customers. However, in a way, they are still hospitable and generous enough to share what they have learned in ways that can help us when we are cooking at home.
I spoke with Chef Alison Settle of Barn 8 at Hermitage Farm, who shared with me some hard-earned wisdom and advice while perusing CliffsNotes’ copy of the past two years for the restaurant and hospitality industry, and her tips for shopping on empty shelves. You remember losing your pasta extruder was the first sign of what was to come.
Barn 8 was about to open when COVID-19 was on the rise in Italy. The machine they ordered “literally got stuck on a container ship in port in Italy for several months because the people on the boat couldn’t leave, they weren’t allowed to come here.”
“The supply chain issue has been going on for a while,” she told The Courier Journal. Looking back, “not only were all these ships stuck in ports,” but restaurants everywhere were passing by iterations of the pier, where everyone needs gloves, masks, and containers to get around, and of course prices go up if you can get these items. For example, the value of the gloves went up from $40 to $50 a case, she says, to $150.
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Food supplies have also been significantly affected. One of its primary providers has canceled Sunday deliveries and “second runs” that allowed same-day orders, and pushed back the order halt date, making the already precarious situation even more difficult. This is not their fault. The domino effect on people getting sick and not going to work is, well, everything.
And it’s not just a restaurant problem. Think of a staple in most American homes: chicken.
“The supply chain has been disrupted,” says Settle. They cannot get corn from farmers to feed chickens. They cannot get employees to run the farms. They can not find a date for the slaughter of chickens. There are not enough people to drive trucks. There are not enough people to repair refrigerators. We’ve come to a point where you want to, ‘Hey, I know this guy who lives 30 minutes away. He has a farm. His name is Luke Gross. He raised (chickens) on rotating pastures (and they) were slaughtered by the Amish. Like, right there. You don’t have to rely on this entire complex system of millions of brokers.”
Everything from staples (like sugar) to the very things we see disappear from store shelves are becoming impossible to rely on for restaurateurs. This means that they have to plan more and more for the future and this turns out to be regular shoppers as well.
So here are five Settle tips and tricks to help anyone deal with food shortages in the grocery store.
Don’t wait until we run out of something to shop
Since I learned the hard way to make dinner for friends last week after their family’s bout with COVID-19, you can’t run to the store an hour before dinner for green onions. There was nothing to be.
We all need to adjust the mindset of “I’ll pick that up when I run out,” Settle says.
“Don’t go to the store to replace your sugar, milk, or fries until you’re completely out and your kids are screaming for hash browns,” says Settle. Get these and other food items as part of a regular grocery run.
And plan ahead for meals, too. You want to “give everything two or three days more than you normally would because you might go to the store today and they won’t get it but they might get it the next day.”
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Get extras (that doesn’t mean compactness!)
If the store has a lot of any shelf-stable item you’re looking for, go ahead and get a little more than you need at the moment. But please don’t raid the shelf and take everything else.
“Nobody needs 50 pounds of rotting potatoes,” Settle says.
But if there’s something consistent on the shelf and available in abundance, like spices, rice, or other basics, take an extra. Your neighbor will probably need it if you don’t.
Get creative with ingredients not on everyone’s list
Settles find more success in ordering, say, caulilini, than regular broccoli because, frankly, the fewer people who hear about something, the less competition there is to rip. (I had to ask her to spell that word, by the way. It’s like a cauliflower if you, too, don’t know.)
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“Relying on underused products has been beneficial for us,” she says. So rely on Google and YouTube and learn about the logical alternatives. If you can’t find broccoli in the store, for example, “look for other cruciferous vegetables that can take similar cooking techniques,” she suggests.
Shop locally at international markets, farmers markets
“You’ll find a lot of things more readily available through local farmers who don’t have … a Kroger customer base,” says Settle. In addition to farmers’ markets, locally owned stores–including many of the international markets in Louisville–often reward shoppers with exact ingredients you can’t find at the big chains.
“I go to them all the time. A lot of times they have things I haven’t seen at the grocery store for two weeks,” she says.
(I can vouch for that, too. Lately I’ve had much more luck at the Bulls Fruit Market than at the supermarkets that have found staples. Early on in the epidemic, I found staples like dried beans and rice were readily available in international markets when they couldn’t be found in another place.)
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Change your point of view about where the food comes from
While Seattle will never say she’s grateful for the pandemic, “It’s been really nice to my philosophy about where you get food, what relationships you build with people, how you cook it…this has never been more important than it is now,” Says. “We’re seeing the supply chain deteriorate around us… I don’t know it’s like the end of society, I wouldn’t be so decisive, but we’re definitely seeing cracks in planning failures and understanding what something like this could do.”
So her last tip for surviving the latest grocery store supply chain problem is to “change the way you think.”
“This is… something we are going to live with. … I would say take it from this person who has been dealing closely with supply chain issues, with increased cost. This is not going to end. This is only going to make things worse. And the best you can be.” What he does is really invest in your community.”
Tell Dana! Email your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.