SLIDERS CAFE- This photo taken shortly after restaurants opened back up shows how much we all enjoy eating out. Hopefully food supply chain can keep the doors open.  -Photo by Ken Stern
SLIDERS CAFE- This photo taken shortly after restaurants opened back up shows how much we all enjoy eating out. Hopefully food supply chain can keep the doors open. -Photo by Ken Stern

When Pat Ball of the Slider Café visited the wholesale US Food warehouse store in Burlington last summer, all he saw were empty shelves. 
“It looked like they were going out of business,” he said. 

Ball and David Kas of The Fork at Skagit Bay are two among millions of restaurant owners at the receiving end of COVID-19-induced supply chain and transportation problems. Mustard, catsup and caramel are out of stock one week. The next it’s toilet paper, pizza boxes and straws. Or they are on back order. Or they are shown on the shipping manifest, but are not on the truck. 

It is frustrating. Owners and wait staff cannot give customers what they want. Customers are not always gracious about that. 

“One day I got a call from a food rep saying ‘hey, I’m not delivering to you, we don’t have the staff,’” Ball explained. “Now I get my deliveries, but when I place my order, I don’t know if I’m going to actually get my product until the truck comes in.” 

“I went weeks not being able to find flour and we bake everything: pizza dough, burger buns and sandwich loaves,” said Kas. “Dinner forks have been on back order for four months.” 

Ball has taken time off to drive to Kent for supplies. Both Ball and Kas do some of their shopping in grocery stores, which are better stocked. And when they see something they need, they buy all of it, no matter what the price. 

“Six months ago, cooking oil for hash browns and eggs was $10.35 a gallon,” said Ball. “Now I’m paying $18 a gallon.” 

One reason for these glitches is that the food supply chain has made two major pivots. “During the lockdown, when everybody was eating at home, the direction and focus shifted from institutional to retail,” explained this reporter’s sister-in-law, Carol Limanowski, who works for US Foods in Chicago.

“When we started to open state by state, retail and wholesale food service were pulling from the same source.” 

She notes that food producers are still rebuilding their inventory and that distribution jobs like warehouse pickers and receiving clerks are hard to fill, that “these are physical jobs working in freezers and refrigerators, not for your average Joe.” 

Trucking is a major sticking point. “There is so much business that carriers cannot carry all the orders,” she said. “Everybody is in line waiting for a truck.” 

“America was 60,000 truckers short before COVID and it is probably twice that bad now,” said Dean Swanson of the Swanson Family Farm, whose off-farm job is in the trucking industry. 

Swanson says current long-haul drivers are reaching retirement age and younger people don’t want to be away from home 27 days a month. Immigrants are stepping up to fill the jobs. 

“Say you are a doctor in Syria and you come here,” he said. “You don’t get to be a doctor but you can drive a semi.” 

When a truck breaks down, it’s hard to lease a replacement, which means many regular food service routes go undelivered. 

Liability is another concern. “Some owners would rather have a truck sitting than have someone who’s not really qualified behind the wheel,” said Swanson. 

Washington’s remoteness, compared to central states like Missouri and Texas, is also a problem. “Does a truck want to travel 1,000 miles to get a load of potatoes to haul 1,500 miles the opposite direction?” 

John Thulen hopes the answer to that question is yes. 

“We are really at the mercy of semi drivers,” said the Pioneer Potatoes owner. “If you can’t get the potatoes off your dock, you can’t get them to Los Angeles or Seattle.” 

Thulen says the one-two punch of a labor shortage and transportation problems is affecting perishable crops like leaf lettuce that must be picked and shipped within 24 hours. 

Agricultural plastic, packaging and tractor parts that used to arrive in six weeks now take 24 or 30 weeks. “We have farm equipment from Italy and Germany. When something breaks down, you just hope there is a part sitting on some shelf in the U.S., instead of in a container ship waiting for customs.” 

About 70 such ships are now waiting to enter ports in Southern California. “It takes one to three days to unload a container ship if the entire supply chain is ready to unload, but longer if there are not enough longshoremen and truckers,” said Scott Price of Edward Jones in La Conner. 

Once unloaded, containers from ships in Seattle are trucked to distribution centers in Kent, where their contents are separated and segregated onto other trucks for final delivery. A lack of distribution staff and drivers slows this process too. 

“It’s a whole bunch of small issues that should be solvable, but when you pile on that many at once, it’s a different story. I think it might take two years or more to fix this mess,” said Swanson. 

“It’s almost becoming normal,” said Calico Cupboard manager Hilary Freed. “Every week it’s something new. If we can’t find an ingredient, we just change our recipes. 

“We’ve all just figured out a way to deal with it.”