US restaurants are facing shortages on everything from olive oil to chicken wings

Restaurants have faced supply chain shortages for more than a year.
Restaurants have faced supply chain shortages for more than a year.
Image: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
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US restaurants are in the midst of an ingredient shortage.

Seventy-five percent of restaurants were forced to change menu items due to supply chain issues, according to a recent National Restaurant Association survey. The association polled 4,000 US restaurants between Sept. 7 and Sept. 15.

David Nayfeld, the chef and owner of Che Fico in San Francisco, has been adjusting his menu, as certain types of olive oil or cheese have been difficult to procure. That comes even when many of the items are locally sourced, he adds. “The supply chain issue seems to be so deep rooted in every spectrum of what we’re doing,” says Nayfeld.

Some restaurants are more limited, and not all can simply swap out ingredients for another. With cream cheese in shortage, bagel shops and restaurants that serve cheesecakes are scrambling to find supply, for instance.

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Restaurants, particularly, fine dining ones, are also reducing their menu size, with 60% of owners reporting they reduced their menu size this year, according to Datassential, a market research firm that focuses on the food industry. Like the economy, restaurant menus tend to expand and shrink, but most restaurants have also not experience huge swings before.

Why are restaurants tweaking their menus?

The need to swap out or let go of items on menus is related to the pandemic and stems from labor shortages at processing plants, higher transportation costs, and higher feed costs. Overall, prices for items like poultry, beef, eggs, and fish have been on the rise in the US—so some restaurants are turning to cheaper ingredients to soften the need of passing higher costs to customers.

The supply chain issues have forced some operators to get creative with what they have on hand—for instance, grilling foods typically served raw or fermenting ingredients to extend their shelf life, according to Elizabeth Freier, director of menu research and insights at Technomic, a foodservice management consulting company. “Because of supply chain volatility, nimbleness will be table stakes, with operators ready to implement menu swaps that take advantage of more readily available and economic ingredients,” she wrote in an email.

Big chains have also been tweaking their menus throughout the pandemic. Over the summer, Wingstop, a chicken wing restaurant chain, encouraged people to order chicken thighs, as prices for chicken wing rose. Meanwhile, McDonald’s in the UK grappled with a shortage of milkshakes.

Some restaurants are pushing Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan, to provide grants for restaurants during the pandemic. The $28.6 billion federal relief fund ran out in June, fulfilling fewer than a third of the grants received.

The sourcing challenges come on top of other problems restaurants have faced during the pandemic, including finding and retaining workers or turning to delivery to stay afloat.

The shortages go beyond ingredients and include non-food items like plates and stemware, says Nayfeld. All of a sudden, restaurants don’t have enough glasses to serve water to guests, he says.