Wimpy's Sandwich Shop owner Shelley Vollmer

Shelley Vollmer, owner of Wimpy’s Sandwich Shop, prepares a hamburger and fries for a customer at the restaurant July 27 in Washington. Wimpy’s and other restaurants are seeing a shortage of ingredients due to supply chain issues caused by COVID.  

These days it seems like you can put any word in front of “shortages,” and it will ring true: toilet paper, labor, lumber. Recently, restaurants have had to add ingredients to that list.

“Every week, there’s something that is short on the truck,” Shelley Vollmer, owner of Wimpy’s Sandwich Shop, said.

This week it’s mushrooms missing from the Wimpy’s menu, but Vollmer said she never knows what won’t be on the weekly supply truck.

She said it used to be a shock if something was missing from her usual order, but now it’s an all-too-common occurrence; something is low or missing from the stock every week. 

Vollmer is hardly alone in her plight. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, restaurants across the country have had a hard time stocking their pantries and freezers as food suppliers and distributors let their inventory shrink because of the perishable nature of food. Supply chains halted during the pandemic and are struggling to meet restaurant demand as restrictions are lifted and customers return to their tables.

Truck and truck driver shortages are slowing deliveries and driving up prices. DAT Solutions, based in Beaverton, Oregon, told The Wall Street Journal the average price on the U.S. spot market for refrigerated truck transport reached $3.09 a mile in early May, up 20.7 percent from the average rate in February. 

Restaurants across the board have been impacted. Fast food giant Taco Bell has added a banner atop its website saying, “Sorry if we can’t feed your current crave. Due to transportation delays, we may be out of some items at your local restaurant.”

For Tony Geiser, owner of Gibby’s Bar & Grill in St. Clair, the problem has been stocking meat and poultry. 

Geiser said he has had to increase prices on his chicken wings, and he’s been priced out of buying ribs entirely, saying he would have to triple the current price he charges to make them profitable to serve in his restaurant.

Geiser said he’s recently been going to his supplier asking for food that he usually doesn’t carry to supplement his menu. He said anything he can put on the smoker and offer as a pop-up special he will buy just to fill out the menu.

“I’ll see pork steaks on sale, so I’ll buy a bunch of pork steaks and put them on the menu, smoke them and have them as a special,” he said. “I found brisket on sale one day. (It’s) just wherever I find on sale.”

Vollmer said she has been to restaurants who have to reprint new menus every week because not only is supply changing so frequently but pricing is as well.

In addition to food, Vollmer said she has seen price increases on paper products, Styrofoam and plastic. With more carryout orders than ever, that has also affected the restaurant’s bottom line.

Tom Kent, owner of the Tilted Skillet, said his cost of food goods has increased over 57 percent in the past four months. He said given the uncertainty of the market, he is afraid to raise his prices because that might decrease his customer count.

Vollmer said most of her customers have been very understanding as there are similar issues at other restaurants and grocery stores. 

“I think everybody is getting used to paying more for things,” Geiser said.

Neither Vollmer nor Geiser have had problems with staffing their restaurants, but it is an additional problem that has wreaked havoc on many businesses across the country. Business Insider reported June 22 that three of four independent restaurants are struggling to attract staff, causing headaches for owners and customers alike.

Although she doesn’t have a shortage of staff, Vollmer said she has struggled working out the shifts.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” she said. “And before all of this, I could tell you what my day’s receipts were going to be within $20 to $40. And now I couldn’t tell you to save my soul what receipts are going to be.

“One day is dead enough in here that one person could handle (working alone). The next day — and Wimpy’s is not large — I could use five people because we’re so busy. So there’s no consistency at all with the suppliers or the customers.”