Rising prices and supply struggles hit Tri-Cities restaurants

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) — Whether you get dinner from a grocery store or sit down at a restaurant, food is getting more expensive.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows the 12-month inflation rate on food has increased nearly 4% as of August 2021.

That percentage is even higher for eating out. The Bureau shows that food away from home rose nearly 5% in the last year while food at home increased 3%.

Those national numbers are hitting close to home in the Tri-Cities.

“Chicken has gone up about 137% from whenever we started,” explained Kimberly White, who owns C & K Sweet Treats and Smoked Meats in Johnson City and Bristo. “With our smoked meats…pulled pork…our pork butts have gone up 65%. Brisket is right there along with that same level. [Brisket is at] a cost point right now that we would have to increase the price so significantly that it would be a no benefit probably. Because typically, we sell it for about $15 a pound. Right now with the price that it’s increased to, we would have to increase that to at least $20-25 a pound.”

Restaurant owners say prices for meat have skyrocketed over the past few months and there are no signs of letting up.

“We’re spending on average about $2,000 a week over what we were previous to this,” said Travis Penn, owner of Delta Blues BBQ in Bristol. “Everything has gone up so significantly. It’s been across the board. Chicken wings right now are the highest they’ve ever been. And then also beef. Beef is just incredibly high right now and it really hasn’t stabilized yet.”

Another struggle: finding the meat to make the items on their menus.

“The price has gone through the roof because they are so hard to get so we may have chicken wings this week, but we may not next week. That goes for other products, even like potatoes,” Penn said. “It’s just really random week to week on what we can and can’t get. Ribs are very limited for us to get our hands on. Those seem to be in short supply and are probably the highest they’ve ever been due to that fact.”

C & K offers smoked meats to-go and pre-made meals. This week, they couldn’t get the meat in to make the smoked turkey for the meals.

“One of the big things is our smoked turkey. We weren’t able to get that this week so therefore we weren’t able to do the meal,” White said. “Typically, we would order two to three cases a week to do the meal portions that we had ordered and now we’re lucky to possibly get one case of turkey in. And sometimes we’ll order it and then they’re coming in and we’re getting adjustments to our order because it’s not in stock.”

Because of that, refunds had to be issued.

“Whenever we have to go back through and refund, we actually get charged a fee for that as well. It’s like a 1.5-2% fee that we lost of that refund processing,” White said. “At our Bristol location, [the meals are] a big majority of our sales during the week. The shakes kind of do well on the weekends when people are off from work and things but during the week our cold-pack meals are our standing force in Bristol.”

With more restaurants offering carry-out options, and more people dining out that way, the price of things like to-go containers and napkins are also going up while being hard to get.

“It’s not only our food costs but the paper products. So, everything across the board has gone up,” Penn said. “As a restaurant business, our profit margins are already pretty tight do this just cuts into them even more,” said Penn. “We might be able to get the napkins that we normally use this week and then for the next three weeks, we can’t get them at all. Like they don’t even have them.”

Owners are also trying to keep the rising costs from hitting customers’ wallets.

“We are trying to keep them at a level where it’s affordable to [the customer] as well and also to keep our business and our customers coming back,” said White. “So, it definitely has been a struggle to try to keep a balance.”

“Early on, we did do a slight price increase. The other thing we’ve done is we’ve made some changes to our menu, not in the way of portion sizes to make things a little bit more convenient for our customers, so we just upgraded the sides and some options like that.”

The increased margins are also making it harder to offer competitive wages in an industry that is dealing with a labor shortage.

“It’s very hard whenever you have chains who are offering $14-15 an hour. As a small business, we’re going to strive to do that. Right now, we’re basically keeping what we can afford,” said White.

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