December 1, 2022

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Than a Food Fitter

Supply issues disrupt food carts during pandemic

4 min read

Aug. 25—Restrictions on capacity. Labor shortages. Overwhelming demand.

As if problems from the coronavirus pandemic were not big enough headaches for food carts across Astoria, supply chain disruptions have made it difficult to get ingredients.

On Tots, a food cart outside of Reach Break Brewing, has struggled to acquire their most essential item: tater tots.

“It gives you anxiety at the end of the day when you look in the freezer and you are like, ‘I do not have tots for tomorrow,'” said Jordan Gagnon, the co-owner of On Tots.

Like many places, On Tots gets food and supplies, including tater tots, from the U.S. Foods Chef’store in Warrenton. United Natural Foods Inc., the store’s supplier and one of the largest wholesale food distributors in the country, had a coronavirus outbreak at a facility in Centralia, Washington, at the end of July. It shut down for a week, which substantially interrupted supply and distribution.

‘Snowballed’

Olaf Ydstie, the owner of Good Bowl food truck, also shops at U.S. Foods Chef’store and said supply issues have “snowballed” since the outbreak. He has struggled to get several important items, including rice, beans and various sauces.

“A normal shopping trip is not going to be for a while because you walk into our Chef’store and it’s scary, to be honest with you,” Gagnon said.

But it soon became clear to Gagnon that supply issues stretched beyond Chef’store.

“It is above anything local,” he said. “This is a regional issue. This is a huge distribution issue.”

As the effects trickled down, On Tots stopped seeing the Ore-Ida tater tots they use altogether. But out of familiarity and loyalty to Ore-Ida’s product, Gagnon and his wife and co-owner, Emily, did what they could to work around the issues.

They have worked directly with Ore-Ida, teamed up with other suppliers and driven to Portland numerous times to get their desired product.

Several times, Gagnon said, they were told tater tots were supposed to arrive and did not. There were also days when tater tots were acquired by suppliers, but the delivery could not be made due to a shortage of drivers.

While frustrating, Gagnon is empathetic to the troubles of suppliers and distributors.

“They are doing everything they can,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for anybody and everybody right now because everyone is struggling one way or another.”

At On Tots, chicken has been a problem as well. Since their most popular dish without tater tots is chicken strips, it could force the them to make adjustments to their menu.

“Here we are, looking like we are getting a light at the end of the tunnel, and then we are getting hit with this,” Gagnon said. “We are going to get creative.”

The scarcity of chicken has also impacted Mai Tong Thai Food, another food cart near Reach Break.

Owner Robert Burns said they have also had trouble getting seafood, fresh vegetables and items such as to-go boxes for several months.

While Burns and his wife and co-owner, Sopa, have been able to stay afloat, they may soon have to make a tough decision.

“For us, it is a serious issue,” Burns said. “We have not yet, but there may come a time when we literally have to shut down because we can’t get certain ingredients.

“We have a fairly large menu so for one item, we can do some things, but there are some things, when we run out — like when we run out of rice and some noodle products — we will just have to shut down.”

In addition to the supply issues, costs for many essential items have skyrocketed.

Burns said the cost of chicken has doubled. Both Gagnon and Burns said the cost of cooking oil has risen significantly.

Both owners were disappointed to say they have no choice but to raise prices.

“We have been trying to take the hit as long as we can and we are now at the point where we just have to (raise prices),” Gagnon said. “Hopefully, when we do it, we are going to let all of the people on social media and our regulars know that hopefully it is just temporary but also, we are not going to hold our breath on that because we do not know exactly what those prices are going to shake out to be.”

‘Nerve-wracking’

Gagnon was reassured by how people have responded. He said they stay in contact with other restaurants, and keep an eye out for each other when looking for certain ingredients.

“It is nerve-wracking and it kind of just shows, one way or another, we are all connected,” he said. “I am getting the same half-and-half that a coffee shop down the street is. I am getting the same cheese that the brewery up here is getting for their pizza. We are all pulling from the same pot.”

While they do get some grumpy customers who are frustrated by the labor shortages and supply issues across the city, Gagnon was moved by the reactions of many customers and residents.

“I had local people calling me — it was almost overwhelming how much support we got when we had our first post that said, ‘Things are looking a little scary here’ … It is a cool deal that this community is still realizing that it is going to take a while. It is going to take teamwork, effort and community,” he said.

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