COVID-19's impact on the meat industry has left people across the Midwest unable to buy burgers from some major fast-food chains and led to prices doubling in some cases within a few weeks.
Strack & Van Til, a Highland, Indiana-based chain of 20 supermarkets across Northwest Indiana, was forced to pass wholesale cost increases onto consumers. It placed notes in its meat sections apologizing for higher prices, saying suppliers are charging more.
No one knows how long the market conditions will last, Strack & Van Til Chief Marketing & Merchandising Officer Michael Tyson said.
"As plants become back online, they are only running at partial capacity. Product availability is still tight, and unfortunately, costs continue to rise. We don’t know when things will start to normalize," Tyson said. "The buyers and meat teams in the stores have done a great job keeping products on the shelves."
Consumers have stockpiled meat, filling up freezers with whatever they can get their hands on.
Crown Point, Indiana, resident Tom Maloney for instance arranged to buy a half cow from a downstate farm nearly 150 miles away to both get a cheaper cost per pound and ensure his family had enough meat in the freezer to last the next eight to 10 months.
"I saw this coming in February and ramped up," Hobart, Indiana, resident Jimmy Fitzgerald said. "Some people shook their heads, but I bought ground beef, steaks, brisket and pork for the freezer."
Large retailers, including Walmart, Target and Meijer, said they have been able to keep meat in stock after plants across the Midwest were closed when hundreds of workers became infected with COVID-19. Costco and Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Meijer, which has a footprint across the Midwest, have put purchase limits on some items while some customers hoard meat products.
Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in America, is now limiting the amount of chicken, pork and beef customers can buy at all its stores.
In Sullivan, shoppers at IGA are facing dramatic price increases for meat in the Central Illinois city.
Barry Golden, the meat manager of IGA owned by Kirby Foods, said the store continues to get hit with price adjustments.
“The sale price for ground round now is $5.77 per pound when just three weeks ago it was $3.99,” Golden said. He has worked at IGA for 52 years and said the pandemic is unlike anything he has seen before.
The demand for products has been difficult to manage.
“At first this reminded me of bad blizzard scares we went through in the 1970s when we had people coming in and stocking up,” Golden said. “That ended pretty quickly as the weather passed, but this new storm hasn’t quit on us yet.”
Amid the shortages, restaurants also have had trouble procuring meat products at a time when most were already struggling as they could only offer carryout, curbside pickup and delivery under stay-at-home orders.
"We are definitely running into supply chain problems with meat, some breads, some veggies and few other odds and ends," said Gabriel Mauch, co-owner of Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith, Indiana.
Restaurant owners across the Midwest have had to search far and wide to find the meats they need to offer their usual menu items. Many have had to turn to new distributors.
"It’s been nearly impossible to get most of the Boar's Head meat we usually carry for the shop," said Kaydee Frostborne, co-owner of the Librarium Cafe in Hobart, Indiana. "We finally were just able to get some."
At a time when business has slowed to a fraction of what it normally is at restaurants, some are opting to swallow the price hikes and hope meat prices go back down soon.
Center Lounge & Restaurant in Whiting, Indiana, has been paying 30% more for meat at a time when it's trying to survive on takeout and delivery orders.
"It’s going to hurt our bottom line," owner Karen Oakes Holmes said. "We haven’t raised our prices."
Others have had no choice. Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar, which has locations in Dyer, Indiana, Mokena, Illinois, and Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, couldn't afford to absorb price increases of $3.20 a pound to $6.40 a pound for brisket or $1 a pound to $2.80 a pound for pork butts.
"We would lose money on every order going out the door," Co-founder and Chief BBQ Officer Brent Brashier said. "Our supplier has plenty of cattle but no way to turn it into beef."
Cheryl Wells, who manages the full-service Lexington Finer Foods in Central Illinois, has the same trouble with her poultry supplier.
“We never know when we order it if we’re going to get it or not,” she said. “We get two trucks a week; we might order (chicken), and it won’t come in on one truck. And then later that week we’ll get it on the second truck.”
Managers can't plan ahead or promise customers what will be in store, Wells said.
“We just tell them, ‘We’ve ordered it; we’ll see if it comes.’”
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