Restaurant owners are reporting disruptions in food distribution services caused by demand spikes and labor shortages.
From mislabeled products to delayed, half-fulfilled and canceled deliveries, valley restaurants are selling out of products and wasting money paying employees to work when the food they’re paid to prepare hasn’t arrived.
“We used to get everything like clockwork, and then, for the past few months, it’s not like clockwork anymore,” said Whistling Grizzly Food and Beverage Director Jason Azarpour.
Azarpour said the products the restaurant purchases frequently come in a day late or incomplete.
“When we’re getting the staff in to prepare food for the next day, they’re standing around because the product’s not here,” he said.
Some of those problems, restaurant owners and managers told the News&Guide, stem from US Foods cutting off accounts in the valley, forcing those restaurants to find other companies to fill the gap.
“Like many in the industry, distributors are facing some labor challenges,” a US Foods spokesperson said in a written statement.
US Foods did not explicitly respond to a question asking whether they have cut off accounts in Teton County, only saying, “We may add a new customer, exit or renew certain relationships for a variety of reasons.”
Kendra Alessandro, director of communications of the Fine Dining Restaurant Group, said US Foods cut off some of the restaurant group’s smaller accounts. Other purveyors filled the gap, she said.
But for many restaurants around town, food distributors from KeHE and UNFI to Sysco are no more reliable.
“We almost never get an order that has everything that we ordered in it,” said Sky Garnick, who owns Cultivate Cafe, a restaurant focusing on organic, vegetarian food and beverages.
Garnick’s food distribution problems began when Charlie’s Produce stopped coming to Jackson earlier this year after Whole Foods acquired Jackson Whole Grocer, which was Charlie’s Produce’s biggest account. The food distribution company tried to find more accounts to justify the drive to Jackson but couldn’t, according to Charlie’s Produce General Manager Matt Fuxan.
Garnick tried to fill the gap by purchasing the restaurant’s organic products from KeHE, UNFI and Grasmick Produce, but each of those distributors has botched or delayed orders, Garnick said.
For example, KeHE alerted Garnick two weeks ago that one of their delivery drivers quit, Garnick said, causing the restaurant’s order to be delayed by three days.
Garnick said Grasmick Produce often leaves orders partially unfulfilled.
UNFI frequently mislabels products, Garnick said, meaning the cafe has to do without necessary ingredients. In one instance, Garnick said he once received yogurt that was labeled whole milk.
“When [food distributors] just don’t bring stuff, we’re forced to go to the grocery stores to buy things, unfortunately,” he said.
Garnick relies on Sysco, one of the nation’s leading food purveyors, to provide paper and to-go items. But Sysco, too, has been lacking. For the past few weeks, Garnick said, Sysco hasn’t been delivering the products Garnick needs to package its to-go food and drinks.
“For the past week or so, we haven’t had to-go cups for our cold drinks,” he said. “So we’re having to serve things without lids or serve things in separate cups.”
Whether Sysco is affected by the labor shortage or other factors is unclear — the company did not respond to requests for comment. Whatever the cause, the lack of consistency is affecting local restaurants, including Garnick’s.
“We’re really struggling because we make a lot of smoothies and juices,” he said. “We’re having to serve [cold] drinks in hot cups, which are more expensive and worse for the environment.”
With no shortage of food distribution hassles, Oscar Ortega, owner of Atelier Ortega and master chocolatier, stepped in 18 months ago to create a specialized food distribution company.
“I started my own distribution company because the deficit is huge,” Ortega said. “We are having a problem of getting pretty much everything we want.”
Ortega’s food distribution company, Frozen & Sweet Solutions, began with his struggles to obtain ingredients like inverted sugar, more than a dozen kinds of couverture chocolate and glucose syrup.
“I have always had distribution problems in Jackson because the kinds of ingredients I use are not the typical ingredients that you’d use in any normal other kitchen,” he said.
Even more standard ingredients like cake flour and granulated sugar became harder to obtain from US Foods and Sysco, Ortega said.
Sourcing products itself, Frozen & Sweet Solutions now provides the high-end ingredients Ortega and other restaurants had been struggling to source.
“When one of our previous vendors that supplied specialty pastry items stopped delivering to Jackson last year,” Alessandro said, “Oscar Ortega started sourcing these items and we began purchasing them from him. He has since become our vendor for some of these harder-to-find specialty ingredients for our Fine Dining Restaurant Group pastry program.”
Ortega said his list of clients includes Cream & Sugar, the Four Seasons, Snake River Grill, the Restaurant at White Buffalo Club and private chefs.
Although Ortega supplies local restaurants with the ingredients larger distributors often cannot provide, he still relies on companies such as Sysco for more widespread ingredients.
“Nobody can beat Sysco prices. It’s one of the biggest companies in the States,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the company’s service has been smooth for him, though.
“I have a huge list of items from Sysco that are out of inventory,” he said.
Just last week, Sysco provided only 63 cases of food after Ortega put in an 85-case order, he said. Two weeks ago, he said, Sysco showed up more than nine hours late for a delivery, causing one of Ortega’s dishwashers to stay late to await the food truck.
While Ortega and other restaurant owners struggle with food sourcing, Ortega knows Jackson’s location in the mountains and distance from large cities makes distribution challenging for larger companies, and that’s something that he says Teton County restaurant owners, including him, must face.
“In the end, we live in the mountains, and we need to suck it up and continue to try to serve our clientele.”
“We almost never get an order that has everything that we ordered in it.” — Sky Garnick cultivate cafe