Pressured cookers: chefs vs the supply-chain crisis

For the food-service sector, recent changes to the availability and prices of produce have led some to find more permanent solutions.
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While chefs are used to some gentle supply fluctuations, the past few months have sent everything – availability, price, reliability – into rollercoaster mode. ‘A keg of cooking oil has gone from £40 to £65,’ says Gabe Pryce, the chef behind Rita's, a restaurant in London. ‘That's a massive increase in a product you use regularly.’

All small businesses are facing a perfect storm of disruptions right now, but restaurants are getting the shortest end of the stick on pretty much every front. There's rising inflation, labor costs and energy bills; meanwhile, climate change is decimating previously reliable sources of basics such as tomatoes, while the war in Ukraine has limited a vital supply of flour

While the current environment has been dubbed a crisis, there are indications that it's less of a grin-and-bear-it-for-now situation and more of a complete reset that's going to impact the dining experience – at the table and in kitchens – for years to come. There are predictions that the supply-chain issues that kicked off around the start of the pandemic won't be resolved until 2024. That means that the workarounds created now could be the next reality for restaurants.

Going local

One solution to Gabe's supply-chain issues came in the form of an Aztec broccoli, which his partner Missy Flynn picked up at a farmer's market during lockdown. It's an unusual ingredient to see in the UK, so she connected with the grower, Max Onslow, who grows organic produce in allotments across north London. His stuff was high quality and close by – the holy grail of local produce, which had started to feel less like a luxury and more of a necessity as the ingredient supply chain was breaking down before their eyes. The first summer was a tough one – an unusual amount of rain made shipments less consistent – but, after assessing the reliability and price of the current supply chain, Gabe decided it was worth sticking with. This summer proved more fruitful, and the partnership is set to continue.

Having a local supplier has also changed the kitchen. The only way that the partnership could work is if Rita's agreed to buy all of Max's produce, so every bit is used between the restaurant in Soho and its sister cafe, Bodega Rita's – two employees are tasked with ensuring that nothing goes to waste. But having a local supplier has also made it easier to educate staff: ‘If I can take them to the ground [where an ingredient] comes from, and I can show them what happens when they put seed in the ground, and then they put that thing on a plate – the way they treat [the] product is completely different,’ says Gabe. Eventually, it might even change the business entirely – Gabe and Max are currently looking to invest in a greenhouse together so that Max can grow year-round and increase capacity.

Supply side shifts

On the other side of the equation, suppliers have had to up their game as restaurant margins get tighter and chefs look for the best deals possible. Ronen Givon, who runs REKKI – a platform that connects suppliers with chefs – has seen buying patterns change as prices have gone up. While some chefs used to buy one-off ingredients (think loose lemons), it's now more likely for there to be orders for boxes and pallets, which can decrease prices and guarantee supply.

Middleman services like Ronen's ensure suppliers get paid while chefs have easy access to ingredient alternatives when supplies fall through. But inflationary cost pressures mean menu prices will have to go up (more than they have already) if small restaurants are to survive. Restaurant owners will have to create exceptional experiences for diners, who might opt to splash out less often – while also elevating working standards, which have been unsustainably subpar. 

‘I hope it'll give more confidence to restaurateurs to increase their prices, [to] create more profit and a healthier environment,’ he says. 

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