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Why do menus look different right now? Restaurant owners explain why

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So many diners have commented to me in the last few weeks that they don’t understand why restaurants have scaled back their menus. 

Apparently they missed the memo, but restaurants are struggling mightily right now due to Covid-19. The shutdowns and dining restrictions are one thing, but there’s a lot more going on than just that to contribute to reduced menus. Case in point: McDonald’s has reduced its menu. If that’s not a sign of a restaurant apocalypse, I don’t know what is. 

I want to give you context about what is going on in restaurants right now, specifically among Pierce County restaurants. Here are thoughts from 10 restaurant owners about why their struggles are real and why they’re limiting their menus or making other changes. 

* The menu is smaller because restaurants have to divert staffing and labor hours from food production to sanitizing. The new sanitizing requirements are labor intensive. Restaurants can’t afford extra labor and they can’t take shortcuts on sanitizing, so they divert labor where they have to.

And, then there’s the problem of employees having to call in for their shift because they’ve been exposed and don’t want to risk infecting customers. Theresa Stockton-Fouquette, co-owner of Bliss Small Batch Creamery in University Place, explained her quandary with running her ice cream shop with a limited number of staff. “Employees are calling in to be ‘on the safe side’ when someone they have been in contact with is either being tested or has been in contact with someone being tested. We are being overly cautious about everything to make sure that we not only keep our customers safe, but that we also keep our employees and ourselves safe. Thank you so much for your patience and understanding.” 

* The menu is smaller because crowds are more unpredictable than usual. 

Kate Swarner, co-owner of Peaks and Pints in the Proctor neighborhood, explained,  “It is also hard to figure how much we may actually sell of certain items also. So to make huge orders (to suppliers) and then not be able to use supplies in a timely matter is expensive and wasteful.” 

* The menu is smaller because the vendor is requiring a much larger order, or an order minimum. Requiring larger orders or an order minimum means smaller places can’t get their usual products in small quantities. They have to do a big order and some places are stretching out the timeline on those orders because of the expense of a larger order. That means they have to remove items from the menu if they can’t get their usual supplies more frequently.

Kate McDonough, who co-owns Louie G’s Pizza in Fife, had this to say, “Our menu was cut down by more than half. Including our top selling non-pizza items. The supply chain is having as hard of a time as we little guys. The costs are changing constantly. And the order minimums caused us to drop two vendors and do that shopping elsewhere. One of those vendors handled mostly my salad bar and without that I wasn’t able to make that minimum on a once a month order. So many factors. Be kind.” McDonough and husband/co-owner Peter Kesling made the difficult choice to close Louie G’s. Their last day of business is August 29, which you can read about here. I’m going to miss their outstanding calzones. 

* Restaurant vendors are out of so many ingredients. Restaurant owners have to go to 8 or 9 (or more) places to source ingredients they used to get at a single vendor. This is extremely labor intensive and owners don’t have time to spend their whole day shopping. Sometimes they have to cut menu items because they can’t squander their labor looking for ingredients.

Jen Gustin, owner of Boss Mama’s Kitchen, the food truck, said ketchup packets will become her breaking point. “You have no idea right now how hard it is to get ketchup packets. People don’t understand that those of us that have been using packets since day one can’t get them because now (all) the restaurants need them because they can’t put bottles on the table anymore. It’s this, and 5,250 other things like this, that are making things so hard for us right now. The ketchup situation is stuck in my craw, big time. Why? Because one of my suppliers got a delivery the other day of several cases… Several. But one minute after they opened, a restaurant manager of a very large chain went in there and bought all the ketchup in the entire store, leaving the smaller folks like myself searching 5-7 locations, for ketchup packets. It’s never ending.”

Deanna Harris Hicks, chef-owner of Over The Moon Cafe in Tacoma’s Opera Alley, added, “Many weeks I order and am not certain if the products I order will even be available. When something doesn’t come in then I have to scramble to try to replace it. I’m shopping myself a lot more to try manage food costs, which are ever increasing. Potatoes have doubled in price through my vendor. Keeping the menu small for me also means that if the worst happens (push back to Phase 1) then my loss potential will be better managed. That lurks in the back of my mind on the daily.” 

Getting gloves still remains problematic for restaurants, even six months after glove shortages started. Gwendolyn Stence, owner of Tacoma’s Rock The Dock said “gloves are GOLD right now!!”  The same for Matt Henning, owner of Midland’s My 4 Sons BBQ, “It has been the COVID gauntlet: Meat, then produce, then cheese and bacon… Now nitrile gloves! Please people leave the gloves for restaurants and healthcare workers. We are required to wear them for ready-to-eat food. I can go through 200+ a day and I am limited to buying 200 a day… We are spending our time doing the glove tour every day to make sure we can still operate.” 

Said Theresa Stockton-Fouquette, co-owner of Bliss Small Batch Creamery in University Place, “I have been running around like crazy this summer trying to find our usual ingredients. When I go to Smart Food Service, I hope for finding 50 percent of my list these days. When I do find an ingredient, I try to buy as much as I can to last a while because I don’t know when or where I will be able to find it again. It is crazy hard to find gloves, and when we do find them, they are limited to 2 boxes per day. The struggle is real! Shopping has become an everyday thing.”

* The costs of certain ingredients have increased so much, restaurants have to wait until the price comes down before they can add an item back on the menu. I’m hearing this particularly with beef, which has just been crazy for cost. If your favorite restaurant specializes in beef and you’ve noticed their menu is way scaled back, that’s what’s going on.

Tony Ruiz, who runs Los Amigos Taqueria with his parents, Antonio Ruiz and Enedina Martinez, was faced with extreme sticker shock for beef when he reopened the family’s South Hill restaurant last month (it converted from a taco truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in July).

“The carne asada plate, when we would go and purchase it before, it would be $7 to $8 a pound. Now when I went to buy some, it was $14 a pound. OK, that’s quite a big difference.” He said they had to raise the price, which was hard for his parents who believe in giving diners a very good value for the money paid.  

Willow Eskridge, co-owner of Lucky’s Drive-In in Parkland, has sticker shock over drink carriers. They “used to be $28 a case, now are $100 a case!! IF we can find them. We’ve been at the edge of running out so many times. No one wants to carry 5 shakes by hand to their car, do they? Can you imagine owning a business where your COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) increased by that percentage overnight? How do you price your items? Daily? Or just lose money?” 

So what can diners do? 
Steve Orchekowsky, co-owner of Black Bear Diner in Puyallup, says it best, “The staff is under a lot of stress and pressure right now. Most guests have no idea the extra amount of work, cost, stress, anxiety and fear all in the restaurant business are experiencing right now. Please be kind when you dine and understand and know we are all doing our best to keep our guests safe, keep our staff safe and provide a great menu with great food and awesome service. Please have grace and understand if something isn’t exactly right. Let us know and we will fix it! Don’t bash us on social media as you are not helping anyone by doing so. Let’s all work together and be kind to each other, guest, staff and management alike.”

YES, RESTAURANTS ARE STILL OPENING. HERE ARE TWO TO CHECK OUT

Did you catch my restaurant opening stories last week? The new Korean fried chicken spot BB.Q Olive Chicken is now open in Lakewood’s Korean dining district. Gilman House also opened last week in the Stadium neighborhood spot that used to be home to The Copper Door.

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