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:
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.