Sorry, there isn’t a lot of good news for restaurants and chefs in recent years-except up to this point customer demand for the experience is rising.  We are all aware of the challenge with the workforce – finding and retaining people to do the job, and we are still feeling the pains from Covid shutdowns and the fear and anxiety that went with it.  But not enough attention is being given to the issues surrounding the supply chain and the lack of real solutions.

Most of the articles we read point to the pandemic as the culprit as well as the centralization of processing ownership.  When one of the big four or five producers or distributors closes or slows down production then the trickle effect falls squarely on the restaurant and the consumer.  This is all true and with some government intervention this may eventually be corrected.  But there are even greater cause and effect challenges that fail to receive enough press; challenges that may not be corrected with the stroke of a politician’s pen.  These cause-and-effect challenges are looming now, and the seriousness will become even more apparent in the months and years to come.

Let’s look at just a few:


Young people are not clamoring to become farmers anymore. The average age of independent farmers today is over 59 years old.  Only 9% of U.S. farmers are under the age of 35.  When our current population of farm operators retire, we will be in serious trouble.  Young people shy away from farming for a variety of reasons:  the work is so physically demanding, real estate prices are rising significantly making it difficult for farms to expand to meet demand, the initial investment in equipment is astronomical, wages keep going up, but the price paid for farm goods is not keeping pace, and farmers are minions to the weather.


Thanks to the pandemic we stopped thinking about global climate change.  Well, it’s still there and its impact is obvious.  Changes in climate impact farming and ranching more than anything else.  Growing cycles will continue to change, unpredictable alterations in weather patterns will continue to haunt farmers, and crops that would normally thrive in certain parts of the world may not be able to survive there now.

[]       WAR:

Ukraine was the 5th or 6th largest agricultural country in the world.  The war has nearly taken this robust farming nation off the map.  Think of the impact on supply that this creates now and in the future.


While numerous factors impact food supplies, the world population continues to grow and so too does the demand for those products.  In 1800 the world population was approximately 1 billion; by 2000 that number had reached 7.9 billion.  Although population growth as a percentage is slowing (from 2.1% per year to 1% per year) this is still a huge number of mouths to feed.  At the same time, our methods of growing and distribution have not evolved sufficiently.


It may seem amazing that we (restaurants and consumers) can buy nearly any food product we want, any time of the year, delivered to even the most obscure small towns, but the system that connects all the dots is not sophisticated enough to avoid bottlenecks and grow quickly with changes in demand.  Most of our goods come to the loading dock through a trucking system from harbor or farm through the miles of roadways that connect those cities and towns.  It doesn’t take much for the system to collapse.  Additionally, many products are shipped before they are mature to protect against damage in transit which impacts the quality of the restaurant plate.


Over the past 100 years the U.S. moved from a decentralized system of food production and distribution to a centralized one.  Certain parts of the country only grow a few crops that have been best suited to their climate.  Those items flourish until the soil is depleted of nutrients or unpredictable weather takes its toll.  We have all felt the pain at the store following a frost in California, a hurricane in the Southeast, or droughts in the Midwest.


Mass produced convenience foods that are low in nutritional value, and high in calories, fat, and sodium, but low in price, have become the staple in many American family diets.  All the above factors are beginning to change the price point making it difficult for families to fill their dinner table.  Many commodities for restaurants have always been inexpensive from flour and sugar to poultry, non-primal cuts of beef, and some more common fish.  Not anymore – just ask your local brewpub what they are paying for a case of fresh chicken wings right now, or your local bread baker – what has happened to the price of flour.  All of this is changing rapidly, and it is beyond the consumer’s control.

For restaurants and for chefs, these challenges are real.  They impact and will continue to impact menus, the skills of cooks, menu pricing, and an already meager profit margin.  The questions are: “what are you going to do about it? How will you prepare for this growing concern?”

The standardized menu that rarely changes and is dependent on constant availability of certain raw materials may be a thing of the past.  Fluid menus that respond to product availability, seasonality, and price will likely return as the most efficient way to operate.  Chefs will need to step away from many of the higher cost prime cuts of meat and exotic fish and be more creative with alternative cooking methods like braising and poaching.  It may be wise to develop stronger relationships with regional farmers and producers and collaborate on menus and the ingredients that they should grow rather than put all your eggs in the basket of one-stop provisioners that will likely be less flexible. Pricing must be based on an assessment of value, knowing that consumers will also need to change their buying habits.  The twice a week diner may now become the twice a month diner and even the family that spent 50% of their family food budget in quick service restaurants will need to cut back.  The times they are a changing and the adage that the strong will survive and the weak shall perish is about to be replaced with: “The adaptable will survive and those who fail to do so will not.”


Think ahead and learn to adapt

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