Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Maryland blue crab price for Chris’ Marketplace was $7 a pound in 1975. The year was 1995. This version has been updated.
The world was full of panic — and mock panic — early this year when Chipotle pulled carnitas from some of its restaurants after a pork supplier was found to be violating the chain’s animal-treatment standards. The shortage continues, with no end in sight.
What if that had happened to a small business? What do you do when even the slightest fluctuation in ingredient supplies can have an outsize impact on your bottom line?
That is the kind of dilemma local restaurateurs and food business owners run into regularly. Weather can wreak particular havoc, as we all learned in last year’s margarita-threatening lime shortage.
Yi Wah Roberts, co-founder of fermented foods business Number 1 Sons, also got a firsthand lesson in the power of Mother Nature last year.
When it came to formulating their pickles, Roberts and his sister Caitlin decided that cucumbers from several West Virginia farms made superior half-sours, dills and more. “The cucumber pickles make up probably two-thirds of our sales,” Roberts said.
So imagine their dismay when Number 1 Sons ran out them last year, a development Roberts attributed to both their popularity and a shortage of cucumbers from growers. He would have preferred to have stocked up on cucumbers to cure and sell over the winter, but that wasn’t possible. Roberts said the farmers typically do two cucumber plantings, and the second planting did not yield the expected amount of produce.
Could such a thing be avoided in the future? Roberts’s light-bulb moment came recently when he attended a sustainable agriculture conference, where he learned what affected the second harvest: downy mildew. Because it can’t survive cold temperatures, the mildew surfaces late in the growing season after it blows north from Florida. It can take out cucumber plants in days, he said.
Roberts has talked to a scientist at Cornell University who is developing a mildew-resistant version of a pickling cucumber. (Most research so far has focused on slicing cucumbers, he said.) Number 1 Sons is also working with a seed grower in Virginia who will provide Roberts with mildew-resistant seeds to share at farmers markets with growers and customers. Both Bigg Riggs Farm and Spring Valley Farm and Orchard have agreed to try growing the in- development variety of cucumber.
“That is a potential success,” Roberts said. “The payoff’s a little further down the road, but it’s worth it.”
Knowing that the cucumber supply is at risk prompted Roberts to look at other ways to diversify and experiment. When he started polling fellow farmers-market vendors for ideas, he learned that they’re frequently left with extra chili peppers, which look great on the sales table but don’t always get cleared out by shoppers. Now Roberts plans to make hot sauce to sell this season.
Julie’s Datery is another local business that had to reconsider and reformulate some of its products. Working out of Union Kitchen in Northeast Washington, owner Julie Reynes produces three flavors of stuffed dates: hazelnut chocolate, pistachio orange and almond lemon. Initially, her citrus-infused varieties included candied lemon and orange peels. But then she learned that those might not pass muster with organic stores, because candied peels often contain sulfites for preservation purposes.
Reynes decided to use lemon and orange marmalades instead. But where to get them? She said lemon marmalade can be particularly hard to find, as well as expensive. Relationships with two local producers fizzled. She then tried making her own marmalades but wasn’t happy with the results. The eventual solution was close to home: The spreads are now coming from fellow Union Kitchen member Bear’s Made.
Granville Moore’s, a Belgian restaurant on H Street NE, also had to recently rethink its menu, albeit briefly.
This past winter’s frigid weather, particularly in New England, temporarily left the restaurant without enough mussels to make its signature dishes in March.
“It was actually a perfect storm,” said executive chef Teddy Folkman. There were two main problems. Pulling seafood out of the water in such cold temperatures would kill it, Folkman said. Plus, thick layers of ice made it hard for boats to get around.
The situation left Folkman paying a lot more for a lot less. In fact, the restaurant stopped serving mussels altogether for a few days, unleashing chef de cuisine Jeremy Kermisch’s creativity.
“He was on Cloud Nine,” Folkman said, “after we all cried first.”
The restaurant’s typical menu includes four non-mussel entrees, Folkman said, mostly sandwiches. During the shortage, Kermisch offered six or seven entrees, including specials of steak frites, roasted branzino and roasted chicken.
Folkman said the restaurant contacted diners with reservations to let them know what was going on. About 75 percent decided to come anyway.
Tracking down sufficient supplies of seafood has been an ongoing problem for Chris Hoge, owner of Chris’ Marketplace. Hoge makes empanadas and other prepared foods that he sells at five FreshFarm farmers markets and the Falls Church market. (Some are available at Whole Foods Markets outside the Washington area.) His signature item is his crab cake.
For years, Hoge has been using Maryland blue crab, the price of which has increased from $7 a pound in 1995 to $17 a pound last year. While Maryland crab will still go into his farmers market goods, he decided that in order to grow his wholesale business, he has to start looking farther afield: Central and South America.
He was drawn to that market partly because he used to live in Panama and also, he said, because few locals other than fishermen eat much crab there. Some prepared foods will be made at his new out-of-the-country processing facility, but others, such as his crab cakes, will continue to be crafted locally.
Like Hoge, Baklava Couture owner Katerina Georgallas is investigating a patchwork solution to a sourcing challenge. Her problem ingredient: butter, which is key to her Greek cookies and items such as her semolina cake and custard pastries.
“I try to source as many local ingredients as I can, and butter is a big deal when you’re baking,” she said. “Even though there are so many dairy suppliers . . . no one really likes to make and sell butter.”
Georgallas sees a number of factors at work. First, making butter is labor-intensive and requires a lot of milk. It takes almost three gallons of milk to make a pound of butter. (Georgallas estimates she can go through 20 pounds of butter every three weeks.)
But about that milk: Georgallas said farmers market shoppers these days are more interested in drinking whole milk than skim milk, which is a byproduct of the process that removes the cream for use in butter. That means dairies can sell more whole milk without the extra labor and resources required to churn butter.
Georgallas said she can’t get enough butter from her current supplier, who would like customers to also buy other products from its dairy line. To get around that requirement and order minimums, she had been piggybacking on someone else’s order. Now that she’s expanding her operation into a storefront in Kensington this spring, Georgallas is considering carrying milk from the dairy so she can order the butter.
She has thought about blending the local sticks she can get with the best store-bought butter she can find. But for now, she’s going to try to build a network of producers who can each provide her with smaller amounts.
This is not the first supply issue Georgallas has run into. California’s catastrophic drought last year decimated the pistachio crop at the farm that is her exclusive supplier. Hence, no nuts for one of her flavors of baklava.
“My customers can’t seem to understand it sometimes,” she said. “If they’re out of it, we’re out of it.”
Sometimes all you can do is shake your head at what fate throws your way. Georgallas’s honey supplier in Maryland once had its hives ravaged in a bear attack.
“It looked,” Georgallas said, “like a robbery took place.”
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