You Think You’ve Got Problems Now, Wait Until the Food Shortages Get You

shortages in fast food chains
Attribution: MDale

The pandemic inevitably affected every aspect of people’s lives. Lockdowns shut down whole industries and businesses as employees and customers stayed home – and the effects were cumulative. Even now, as a massive vaccination program gradually eases social restrictions, the havoc wreaked by the virus is still being felt, most recently in the food industry.

Shortages of crucial ingredients are impacting some of the most popular fast-food menu items. Where the problem lies varies from a pandemic-fueled surge in demand to supply lines where transport operators and primary providers are still struggling in the recovery phase.

It’s having wide-ranging effects. Here are the top five currently experiencing significant short supplies.

1. Chicken Wings

Back on February 5, EatThis,NotThat reported looming shortages of this much-loved favourite.

[F]ast-food chains across the country are grappling with low supplies of chicken wings. And that’s not all—experts are warning that we may be on the cusp of a nationwide shortage of this in-demand comfort food.

Restaurant Business noted the impact of increased pandemic demand on dwindling cold storage supplies.

The current cold storage stock of chicken wings is at its lowest in a decade, said Isaac Olvera, a commodities and data analyst with supply chain firm ArrowStream, citing United States Department of Agriculture figures.

“In 2018, we saw wing supplies really grow,” Olvera said. “Those cold storage stocks really have been whittled away. It’s the lowest wing stocks we’ve seen since 2011.”

Restaurants that built their identity around this central food item, find themselves exploring other options in an effort to insulate themselves from the volatility of the wing market. Wingers is promoting its plant-based alternative, Buffalo Cauliflower Wings, while Wingstop is testing bone-in chicken thighs as part of a broader whole-bird strategy.

On Monday this week, EatThis,NotThat reported on the current status of the chicken wing shortages:

While big brands like Domino’s and Wingstop may not be impacted just yet, reports from states like Texas and Wisconsin warn of local restaurants that are running out of wings.

2. Boba Balls

Boba are tapioca starch balls. Thrillist blogger, Kat Thomson, explained that the boba drink originates from Taiwan and, depending on which part of the country you happen to be in, is variously known as bubble tea, pearl tea, and tapioca tea. This excerpt,

Originally, boba pearls were used in shaved ice desserts and paired with syrups, beans, and delectably chewy rice balls. Milk tea was also consumed regularly and thankfully, someone decided to merge the two, thus creating the genius, beloved drink we now have today.

is part of an interesting and entertaining history that is well worth the read.

Indeed reading about them may be all we see of them for the foreseeable future. Market Watch warns that a dire shortage of boba balls is imminent.

If you’re able to order a bubble tea today, you’d better savor it — it may be your last one for a while.

The nation is facing a boba crisis, as the massive shipping backlog on the West Coast is creating a shortage of both boba balls, imported from Taiwan, and tapioca starch, which is used to make the boba and largely comes from Thailand. Those in the booming bubble tea business are warning customers that boba supplies will likely be depleted in the coming weeks, and it could take months for the supply to get back to normal.

It’s taken boba aficionados by surprise.

3. Oat Milk

Because customer response had been “overwhelmingly positive,” Starbucks promoted oat milk to permanent menu status across its 15,000 U.S. cafes on March 2. Three weeks later, that surge in popularity coupled with a pandemic-related delay in the construction of a new Oatly factory, created serious shortages. On March 25, the Oatly website showed only a single variety available, with the other three sold out.

Supermarkets, including FreshDirect, a New York City-based online grocer, are also experiencing shortages of Oatly products.

Bloomberg reports the company is well aware of the problem and working to resolve it.

Oatly had planned to meet rising demand with a new plant in Ogden, Utah, that was scheduled to open last year. However, this has been delayed because of pandemic-related problems. The facility is currently coming online and should be producing commercially available oat milk within the next several months, according to the company.

Meanwhile, oat milk devotees are really feeling the sudden deprivation.

4. Ketchup Packets

It’s been a harrowing 15 months for the restaurant industry. Some didn’t make it, some downsized to survive. Now the survivors are facing yet another pitfall on the road to recovery: a shortage of ketchup, the nation’s most popular condiment.

It’s because Kraft Heinz, America’s primary ketchup producer, just hasn’t been able to keep up with the surge in demand.

The Wall Street Journal reports the ketchup squeeze is affecting restaurants nationwide.

The pandemic turned many sit-down restaurants into takeout specialists, making individual ketchup packets the primary condiment currency for both national chains and mom-and-pop restaurants.

Even fast-food giants are pleading for packets. Long John Silver’s LLC, a nearly-700 unit chain, had to seek ketchup from secondary suppliers because of the rush in demand.

So if you’ve noticed your favourite dine-in/drive-thru being stingy on ketchup packets or suddenly serving other-brand ketchup, you’re not alone.

5. Staffing Crisis

Chronic staff shortages are bedevilling restaurants everywhere, reports Business Insider which collected these quotes for their article on the problem.

  • “Everyone … is struggling to keep stores open from lack of staff,” said a Subway franchisee.
  • “It’s just craziness out there,” said John Motta, a Dunkin’ franchisee. “This is the pandemic of 2021 – lack of people to work.”
  • “We are struggling to get people,” one McDonald’s franchisee told Insider. “I don’t have enough. Can’t get enough. Wish I had enough.

A whopping 42% of small business owners said they had job openings that they could not fill, according to a March survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The labor shortage is making existing workers’ jobs more difficult, contributing to burnout and the vicious cycle that has helped drive away some potential employees.

Because staff are spread too thin and working more hours, delays and mistakes happen. Then impatient customers take their ire out on the overworked, further exacerbating the problem. Worker stress and burnout have increased exponentially.

Out of utter frustration, an Outback Steakhouse employee posted the following sign:

For the Outbackers that do show up for work, we ask for your understanding and patience. They are doing the very best to ensure your dining experience is what you have come to expect from Outback Mid-town.

It was promptly removed by management but not before a photo of the sign hit social media. Since then similar signs have started appearing at fast-food outlets all over the country.

So if you’re looking for work in the foodservice industry, your local fast-food restaurant is eager to hire you. 

If you’re a customer, please smile and compliment the staff.

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  1. The jobs aspect of this is the only part that gets to me – people out of work not just in restaurants but in jobs that supply the foodstuffs and supplies. As for specific food items ketchup shortage would suck. At least now I get why if you don’t specifically ask for it a fast food joint doesn’t put ketchup in the bag when you order something like fries or onion rings with the meal. The other items? I’ve never, ever gotten why so many people are so enamored with chicken wings. Not me. I’ve never once ordered them or even had the desire to. The handful of times I’ve eaten one it was because someone included them with a bit of food or snack they put together for me at some party or gathering. Each time after one I’d offer the rest to someone else. The boba ball thing? I’ve been in a Starbucks exactly one time in my life and that was because I had an in person meeting with someone I tried to connect with on an online dating service and being the guy I let her choose a place where she felt comfortable. I haven’t been much of a coffee drinker since my 20s and for damned sure am not inclined to shell out the kind of money you have to in a place like Starbucks. Oat milk is something I never heard of. I do however hope that oatmeal doesn’t become a hard to buy thing.

    But again what truly concerns me is the jobs and income that have been lost and continue to be at risk. If, while in line for take-out or at a fast food place it seems to be taking “forever” I do try to keep in mind that on a given day or evening any place might be having one of those days when staff call out at the last minute and they are shorthanded. I’ve had my own “one of those days” when an unexpected big smile or compliment or even simple “You have yourself a good rest of your day” had made a bad day so much better. That’s exactly the kind of thing we all can do, a pay it forward we should strive to do. It doesn’t cost us a thing, and often without our ever knowing it we’ll have made someone’s day.


  2. I wonder if the ketchup shortage is why Burger King eliminated their Fry Sauce, a real tragedy! 🙂 Something that was hard to impossible to find last summer were canning jar lids. I’ve kept an eye out all winter, and still do, but I haven’t been seeing those on the shelves. Also in short supply last year were freezers. Anything to do with food storage was affected. Not sure it’s going to be any better this year. At least we have toilet paper!

  3. It seems that employers, especially in the food supply/restaurant industry want and need more people to work for them.
    But they don’t want to pay good, livable wages.
    This is their forked tongue.

  4. No one has mentioned how many people aren’t going back to work because they’re getting so much in unemployment. I do appreciate that our government is helping those who need it. I do know several people in this exact situation right now. They’re so happy they get to stay home – and I know how hard they have been working for the years before the pandemic. Just my observations.


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