Aside from getting the seasonings and smoke just right, Leavy B. Jones Sr. taught his daughters another important lesson about slinging barbecue in Kansas City.
“We allocate money every year in case we have to close,” said Deborah Jones. “That’s something my dad taught us: when times get hard you need to make sure you have a fall-back fund.”
That cushion may come in handy in the coming weeks for Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kansas. While restaurateurs are struggling with unprecedented closures amid the pandemic, another challenge has emerged that uniquely threatens Kansas City’s legendary barbecue scene: a national meat shortage.
“Believe me, I am worried,” Jones said. “At first we were worried about the coronavirus. Now we’re worried if we’re going to have enough meat to do what we need to do.”
The Jones sisters — and their humble barbecue stand on Kaw Drive — were featured on the third season of Netflix’s “Queer Eye.” The exposure helped create an international fan base and skyrocketed the sisters’ success in both smoked meats and bottled sauce.
But with meatpacking plants across the Midwest shuttering from huge outbreaks of the coronavirus, the sisters are having trouble acquiring product from their regular meat suppliers. Jones said she saw only empty coolers on a recent trip to a local restaurant supply store.
“I’m quite prepared if it comes to where we don’t have any meat, we could be closed for a month or so,” she said. “This is something nobody counted on. We all kind of have to adjust.”
Stress on the nation’s meatpacking plants has already materialized with shortages at grocery stores: Hy-Vee recently announced it would limit customers to four packages of fresh meat at each purchase. Likewise, Costco has limited members to three meat items each.
That crunch has now made its way well into the restaurant space. Some high-end cuts of meat have actually decreased in price in recent days. But other common cuts are skyrocketing in price. And local restaurant operators have seen prices soar on pork butts and beef brisket — the bread and butter of barbecue menus — as supplies thin.
“In Kansas City, being out of brisket is a big deal,” said Terry Hyer, chief operating officer at Zarda Bar-B-Q. While he doesn’t expect the crunch to last too long, he said barbecue lovers should be prepared for spot shortages on certain items and higher prices on some menus in the short term.
So far, Zarda has not raised prices at its Blue Springs or Lenexa restaurants. But market prices are soaring: Hyer said the price of brisket flats — the cut many restaurants use to make sliced and chopped brisket — nearly doubled in one week. That means places like Zarda are selling at or below cost as they wait for the market to settle.
“We hate raising prices. We absolutely hate it,” he said. “But right now we’re understanding there is a new normal in almost everything. And it looks like there is a new normal in what we have to pay for protein.”
THE SUPPLY CHAIN
Restaurants often purchase commodities like meat in bulk, agreeing to a set price for the course of several weeks or even months. That locks in a per-pound price that is immune to the day-to-day ups and downs of the market.
“It’s kind of like trying to pick stocks at some levels,” Hyer said, noting Zarda had just recently locked in a favorable price on pork. “Some years you win and other years you might miss a little bit.”
Similarly, Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue lucked out with a hefty contract two months ago, securing 1,200 cases of brisket at a price of $2.45 per pound. As the pandemic began, meat prices actually dropped and the restaurant snagged another 400 cases at $1.75 per pound, said owner Jerry Rauschelbach. He said those purchases mean Arthur Bryant’s will be set for the next several months. But they also show how fast the market has moved: brisket was selling for more than $6 per pound this week, he said.
At that price, menu prices would soar by the time the meat is trimmed, smoked and served.
“If I didn’t have brisket and I had to pay $6 a pound, I would take brisket and burnt ends off my menu,” he said. “There’s just no way I could consciously serve sandwiches at 20 bucks. There’s just no way.”
With business down as much as 70%, Rauschelbach said he’s lost money over the last two months. He’s trying to be creative, ordering picnic tables for outdoor seating and launching mail-order meat products. But he said Kansas City barbecue spots will be hit hard over the coming months as the usual flow of summertime travelers slows. The last thing they needed was a meat shortage, which hits nearly every kind of restaurant.
“It’s a big problem nationwide,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a long time for them to figure out how to get those packing plants into operation without spreading the virus.”
Already, some restaurants outside Kansas City have begun reopening their doors to limited dine-in service. And Kansas City will allow the same next week. That increased demand will only further stress meat supplies, said Paul Mies, one of the owners of Mies Family Food.
“It’s difficult to keep up,” he said. “Every day’s an adventure down here. We buy from a lot of different packers so we can generally pick around the edges and keep the supply rolling. But the demand is so strong.”
The local company supplies meat and other products to grocery stores and restaurants. Early on, many barbecue joints decided to stay open, like Zarda, predicting that the pandemic would drive sales of comfort foods.
“And in Kansas City, that’s barbecue,” Mies said.
But he said he’s warned some local barbecue restaurants that did close during the pandemic that they may not have the meat supply they require to reopen.
“That’s unheard of for one of us to say. But we’re struggling right now,” he said.
Mainstays like ground beef are especially hard to source, a troubling sign for the multitude of restaurants that offer burgers. And the shortages mean barbecue joints have to consider different items, including frozen meats.
“They prefer fresh, but let’s face it, we’re in a pandemic,” Mies said. “You might think you don’t want it, but all of a sudden if it’s available you’ll work with it.”
The same goes for secondary proteins like turkey and ham, which are much cheaper than beef.
“My recommendation to them is to sell what’s available, not necessarily what the consumer wants,” he said.
Menus are already changing at Smokehouse Barbecue’s restaurants in Kansas City, Independence and Gladstone.
“We always sell beef ribs and prime beef short ribs,” said Josh Ghasemi, the director of operations. “We’re not going to be able to sell those anymore.”
With healthy supplies of pork, chicken and turkey, Smokehouse’s biggest problem has been beef. He said the restaurant was currently evaluating menu prices on beef items. Ghasemi said rising beef prices will hit all restaurants and consumers: even fast-food giant Wendy’s is struggling to keep hamburgers in stock at its locations. For the short-term, Ghasemi says customers should expect higher prices and limited supplies at the grocery store and restaurants alike.
“We’re in the Midwest and we’ve been cooped up all these months and we’re ready to get out in the backyard and smoke some ribs or light up the barbecue. And unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait,” he said.
With suppliers stretched, Plowboys Barbecue has had to source smaller briskets. That may sound like a small concession, but it entirely changes the cooking and preparation process. At the same time, prices are soaring.
“We may end up not serving brisket at some point if we can’t afford to bring it in,” said Todd Johns, an owner of Plowboys. “Brisket is $6.50 a pound, which is more than what people are paying for ribeye steaks right now in the grocery store.”
That number is especially high considering about half the brisket is lost in the smoking and trimming process. Plowboys has temporarily closed its downtown store, but is offering carryout at its restaurants in Blue Springs and Overland Park. Even as it struggles to find some products, Johns said his supply of ribs is strong with a contract locking prices through the end of the year. And the company just launched chicken wings, so Plowboys will likely push rib and wing specials in the coming weeks.
“If we can encourage people to purchase the proteins that we are able to get and get at a good price, then we can help keep the cost down for them, too,” he said.
Just as the medical experts talk about the curve of COVID-19 infections, Johns said meat prices are following a similar upward curve. It’s unclear when that curve will start to bend back down, though he’s hopeful it will be a matter of weeks, not months.
In the meantime, Plowboys is trying to buy as much pork and beef as it can when it’s available. But that’s an especially tough proposition when revenues are down by more than half.
“With pork and beef, we’re kind of like snipers. Every time we find something, we try to snag it,” he said. “But everyone else is doing the same thing. You’ve just got to realize there will be a time when you just can’t get product.”
Source: The Kansas City Star