KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On a breezy morning back in early April, inside the Kansas City-area home where he pays his bills by serving finger-licking good food, Terry Hyer walked into his kitchen and heard something on TV that drummed up uneasiness in his barbecue-loving soul.
There were meat-packing plant closures in Iowa, the newscast said, all due to the percolating COVID-19 pandemic.
And Hyer, the amiable chief operations officer and partner at Zarda BBQ in Kansas City, let out a sigh.
“And I thought, ‘Uh, oh,” he said.
Hyer, 55, has been in the barbecue business 40 years now, long enough to know what the closings meant. If the coronavirus was spreading badly enough to shut down a few meat-packing plants one state away, others would almost certainly follow. The tight quarters and grueling work virtually guaranteed it.
So when the United States surpassed 30 plant closures this month — including some in Missouri and Kansas — Hyer wasn’t surprised.
“With that many plant closures, supply disruption was inevitable,” Hyer said. “This is our lifeblood.”
That’s been a major problem in Kansas City, the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of the world, where several restaurant owners who spoke to Yahoo this week explained what it was like to fight for dollars and, in some cases, survival amid the pandemic.
“Grocery stores, retail stores that provide essential items, those guys have seen a boom,” said Joe Pearce, who co-owns the popular Slap’s BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas, with his brother Mike. “They can’t keep enough staff, hire enough staff, keep the doors open long enough.
“Then you have restaurants like mine, that are struggling everyday to keep the employees paid.”
While the meat shortage has raged onward, spurred by a variety of factors that have conspired to cause a domino effect, many of those same Kansas City restaurateurs have reasons for optimism for things turning around this summer. But there’s also an understanding there’s still much that they cannot control.
“We have seen that everybody in the supply chain is having an extremely difficult time,” said Ricky Paradise, the president of Jack Stack BBQ, another popular Kansas City restaurant. “We don’t see any winners in the process — we see everybody feeling the burden of COVID-19. It’s unprecedented.”
Why is there a meat shortage in Kansas City when livestock is plentiful?
Mark Mies is one of the owners of Mies Family Foods, a second-generation wholesale meat supplier based in North Kansas City. You may not know who he is, but your favorite restaurant likely knows someone like him.
After ranchers raise the cow — or pig, or chicken, or whatever meat you’re eating — for a certain period of time, they then sell the animals to a processing plant, which slaughters and packages them. After that, meat suppliers like Mies come into the fold, buying the product in bulk, then turning around and selling it (along with everything else that any self-respecting restaurateur might need), essentially making them a one-stop shop. That’s the cycle.
But when you throw a wrench into the machine like a pandemic, things can get out of whack quickly, even if only one part of the machine gets gummed up. And in this instance, it’s happening at the meat-packing plants, where multiple COVID-19 outbreaks across the country have either caused outright closures or, at best, diminished capacity, as many are operating with a fewer workers and enhanced safety measures.
“It takes a certain amount of employees to take that animal and get it in a box,” Mies explained. “And beyond that, when you want value-added items like boneless loins, St. Louis-style spare ribs … that all takes extra labor that most of these plants haven’t had. So a lot of that value-added product, especially on the pork side, we’ve not had for weeks. It’s just not been available.”
The meat-packing plants’ inability to process normal amounts of meat has led to two primary consequences. One, the ranchers who sell live animals to them are getting squeezed because they suddenly have more product than the meat-packing plants can buy. This is costing the ranchers money, since there’s a cost to feeding every animal, and many then choose to dispose of the animal via euthanasia.
And two, you have the restaurateurs, who are seeing prices surge for the most premium proteins they want to buy — like brisket, a Kansas City staple — because the supply of processed meat has decreased, despite the fact there’s no shortage of live animals.
“We’ve seen briskets go, in a very short period of time, from $1.99 a pound to over $6,” Mies said. “If you take the raw material cost from $1.99 to $6, you’ve taken [restaurants] from a position of making money to a position of where they may be selling that brisket sandwich and losing money.”
Some Kansas City restaurateurs have avoided paying the highest of prices thanks to some fortuitous planning.
Will Kansas City run out of meat amid coronavirus pandemic?
To Pearce, the NFL, NBA and MLB suspending their seasons was the first clue that something wicked was coming to his business. Fearing that COVID-19 would eventually hit meat-packing companies, Pearce made some calls and locked in plenty of beef and 55,000 pounds of pork from his suppliers at a solid rate at the beginning of April to get through the pandemic.
“Some companies are in for the fight for their lives on protein right now,” said Pearce, who added that he has enough product to get through the end of June. “To think, if we were in the position where we would have had to pay double for the same product we’re getting, I mean, it would break any restaurant. And if we had not been prepared by purchasing a little extra back in April, we would be paying twice as much for almost every protein we sell.”
Other restaurants were fortunate too, including Hyer and Zarda BBQ, which procured some of their meat before the pandemic and have been locked in on both pricing and product despite market volatility. But even that’s not guaranteed these days. Hyer said that on Thursday, a major packer notified him that it cannot supply hams now.
“They just said sorry, we can’t fill any of your order — not one case of it,” Hyer said.
Hyer switched gears and is buying from another local supplier. That’s something Mitch Benjamin, part owner and partner of popular K.C. restaurant Char Bar, has done as well.
“You can get [meat],” Benjamin said. “It’s just, can you afford it? And can you pass it along to your customer?”
There’s certainly a risk in doing the latter.
“From a restaurant standpoint, we kinda have to eat that cost because times are tight, money’s tight, customers are scarce and the last thing we want to do is raise our prices,” Benjamin said. “We’re trying to attract customers … not scare them off.”
While some popular K.C. barbecue restaurants have temporarily raised prices, Benjamin hasn’t and neither has Hyer. Mies says that smaller, independent restaurants he works with have made similar decisions, choosing to get creative with their selections instead of charging customers more.
“We’ve turned a lot of people onto a trimmed brisket point, which has been a great piece of meat that our barbecues can use, that we’ve been able to source and keep in their restaurants at a more competitive price,” Mies said. “A lot of my barbecue restaurants have learned how to reinvent themselves.”
That flexible spirit is part of the reason Mies says that neither Kansas City, nor the Midwest, will run out of meat soon.
“Absolutely not,” Mies said, emphatically. “Both the beef industry and the pork industry will slaughter more animals this week than they did last week, and were it not for Memorial Day, they’d all be in a better position to slaughter more animals next week than this week. So we’re already on a comeback.”
Restaurant, meat-packing industry must adapt
Mies’ optimism, shared by several of the restaurateurs who spoke to Yahoo, is also rooted in something they all admit they don’t have any control over: the ability of the meat-packing plants to prevent further outbreaks.
And while stories continue to be published across the country about workers who are enduring difficult conditions in such facilities, the processing plants themselves are touting their increased safety measures as they begin to re-open. These range from temperature checks to social distancing, which includes keeping workers 6 feet apart with plexiglass between them.
“There is a very good chance that if these giant companies don’t get their acts together and really start taking the safety of their employees seriously, we might have a [meat] shortage show up where we can’t get those [cuts of meat] and we won’t know when we’ll get them,” Pearce said. “Long story short: We can’t do this again.”
It remains to be seen how effective it will all be in the long run, especially given the unknowns that swirl around COVID-19.
“Can people who have had this and have survived it be reinfected? No one knows the answer to that question,” Mies said. “[When] will there be a vaccine? No one knows yet. All those things are gonna have a tremendous impact on this.”
Even if the precautions prevent future outbreaks, it still looks like Kansas City restaurateurs might need to settle into this new normal for a while. Andre Nogueira, the chief executive of JBS Holdings, the country’s biggest beef producer, recently told The Wall Street Journal that all the precautions they have taken to prevent COVID-19 will likely hamper U.S. meat production for months because they don’t expect to go to full capacity “anytime soon.”
If that’s the case, the local restaurateurs will need to continue to be flexible and creative in the face of the fluctuating pricing and swings in meat supply.
“We’re all literally writing a playbook and living this day-to-day and week-to-week,” Hyer said.
In the meantime, many of them have witnessed some positive developments. Pearce is gearing up to reopen his restaurant for sit-down customers in the coming days, a key to him recouping some of the revenue his business has lost.
Meanwhile, Benjamin’s online business — where he sells smoked meats and sauces and is separate from his restaurant — has done the same amount of business the past two months than he did all of last year.
And finally, Hyer’s customers have rallied around his business, as both his drive-thru and curbside pickup orders have “exploded” as the weather has started to warm up.
“They’re coming out to support us, telling us this is the most normal thing they’re doing — [eating] Kansas City’s barbecue,” Hyer said with a laugh. “All of our kids that are delivering food to their cars are making more tips than they’ve ever made in their life. People are being very generous.”
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