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Long Island restaurants grapple with ingredient shortages, price spikes 

Avocado toast at Dirty Taco and Tequila in

Avocado toast at Dirty Taco and Tequila in Rockville Centre. Credit: Daniel Brennan

When Hurricane Ida devastated Louisiana in late August, Mara and David Levi of Mara’s Homemade couldn’t get gator sausage, Gulf oysters and a few Cajun-food items for their Syosset restaurant — but it was almost a minor nuisance compared to the web of shortages they’ve grappled with over the last year.

"Where you used to be price conscious, forget about price," said Mara Levi. "It’s whether you can get [an item] or not."

As diners flock back to restaurants, some might be unaware of a behind-the-scenes drama taking place: Cresting food prices and unpredictable supply shortages that have compelled restaurant owners to rejig prices and rewrite menus, sometimes weekly.

At Konoba in Huntington, owner Daniel Pedisich has also had to adjust prices and menu items to adapt. "It’s not just food — but containers, soap, you name it — have jumped pretty much 30 percent. You’re constantly shuffling and reprinting the menu," said Pedisich.

Even so, he said, it’s increasingly difficult to pass on costs to consumers. "Basically you can keep going for maybe another six to eight months working like this — or you close now, pay your bills and cash out," said Pedisich, who some nights works the dining room and bar alone due to a labor shortage. "In my years of doing this I’ve never seen something so ugly. It was honestly easier to pull off during COVID in the second half of last year."

According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for the region that includes Long Island was up 5.4% in Sept. from that month last year, and the cost of food consumed away from home rose 4.7% over the same period. The U.S. wholesale food price index told a starker story: In Sept., wholesale prices were 8.6% higher than at the same time last year, according to the U.S. Labor Department — but several operators reported much higher price spikes from suppliers on certain items.

Michael Imbriano, a territory manager for US Foods — one of the country’s major food distributors — arranges deliveries to scores of restaurants and caterers throughout the metropolitan area. He cited several factors as impacting food costs: Labor shortages, fuel prices and, especially, the price of shipping containers. A container from China used to cost $2,000, $2,500, he said. "Now it’s $20,000. The supply chain is broken for sure, and the end user doesn’t understand what is going on."

Imbriano can, off the cuff, cite past and current prices of everything from Snapple to graham cracker crumbs to Angus beef. Chicken tenders have been harder to come by, he said, as have canned beans. "They’re very tight because aluminum isn’t available," he said. Ditto for bottled drinks such as Gatorade. "They don’t have the bottles to put the product in. That’s why prices have gone from $75 to $80 per case to over $150 in less than a year.

Here are eight items Long Island restaurants say they are paying more for right now.

AVOCADOS Avocados, which fluctuate in price seasonally, were especially dear this summer. At Dirty Taco & Tequila in Woodbury, keeping the price of a bowl of guacamole steady at $8.50 has meant constant sourcing hustle from owner Tom Cataldo, Sr. The fruit spiked in price over the last few months from $19 a case, he said, to $79 a case.

CHICKEN WINGS Gina Caggiano, who owns the bars North Village Tavern in Rockville Centre and BTW in Oceanside said the price of chicken wings, a bar-food-staple, has almost become untenable, jumping from $98 to $160 a case. At Mara's, as chicken wings soared in price or sometimes we just not available, the Levis took them off of the menu and replaced them with a new dish: Lollipop chicken drumsticks. "We created a smoked, fried, sweet and spicy drumstick with sweet bourbon and Nashville hot sauces," said Mara Levi. "It’s five for $15, and less expensive to make and serve."

FRYING OIL Levi said it costs four times more than it did just a few months ago. "We had to stop serving French fries and onion rings with sandwiches," she said. "Now we serve coleslaw." For Caggiano, the price of cooking oil has spike from $18 to $50 a box.

CALAMARI That ubiquitous menu item, which can be harvested in the Atlantic but often either comes from or is processed in China. "Between Montauk and Rhode Island is some of the best calamari in the world, but then it needs to be shipped to a processing plant abroad," said Pedisich. A plate of calamari at Konoba used to cost $14, but has since jumped to $18.

SCALLOPS & TUNA "I can’t get ahi tuna right now," Caggiano said, so she has dropped an ahi-tuna wrap from the menu and is constantly reworking around the supply pinch. At Konoba, Pedisich has nixed scallops entirely, as they’ve tripled in price since pre-pandemic, he said, so the each scallop costs the restaurant $3.50. "You put two scallops into a stew and people think you’re cheating. A dish you’d usually sell for $28 or $29 is now $39. We dropped them from the menu," he said.

WRAPS At Jeera, an Indian food ghost kitchen in Garden City that opened earlier this year, Radhika Chopra plans to axe wraps from the menu and replace them with sandwiches, as the price of the wraps themselves has risen. "In the fast casual realm, you’re dealing with price-sensitive customers, so costs going up have made us rethink some of the items on our menu," she said.

DISPOSABLES Restaurant owners said they're seeing shortages and price jumps in takeout containers, disposable cups and plates, and cleaning products, too. "I change my dinner napkin brand every week, and I haven’t gotten a plastic cup in three or four weeks," said Cataldo. "My days are spent as a product manager at this point."

Is there a temptation to tinker with portion size to absorb cost? Cataldo is wary of that. "My guests would recognize smaller portions or [a decrease in] quality immediately," he said. "We’re doing everything we can to not to raise prices. We realize that, as a family, there is going to be a smaller margin at the end of the day. When we get to the other side of this, though, there might be dividends for us. To me it’s a long-term gain."

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