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Skyrocketing meat prices put Las Vegas restaurant owners in jam

Updated May 15, 2020 - 6:26 pm

Four dollars to add pepperoni to your pizza? A 50 percent increase in the price of your favorite barbecue? These are the types of scenarios local restaurateurs are scrambling to avoid, even as they face the host of other challenges associated with reopening their dining rooms.

A combination of increased demand, as more restaurants resume operations, and disruption in traditional supply chains because of COVID-19 have resulted in skyrocketing meat prices at restaurant suppliers. And things are getting worse.

“We were getting brisket at $2.89 (per pound),” Rollin’ Smoke BBQ’s John Holland said. “It’s now at $3.79. And they’re saying next week it’s going to be $4.20, and after that it’s going to be six dollars plus.”

In an effort to assure he won’t have to raise brisket prices soon, Holland has locked in 180 cases for his three locations at $3.79. But he is worried about what will happen when that runs out.

“Right now, people aren’t working and they depend on a good quality meal at a good price,” he says. “Once I run out of this brisket, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Difficult decisions

For a worst-case scenario, one doesn’t have to look far. In Boulder City, Fox Smokehouse BBQ had been preparing to close its current location to the public upon opening a new space this summer. After seeing the price of brisket rise 239 percent, the owners announced Wednesday that May 17 would be the last day of operation at the current spot.

“We just can’t ask our customers to pay those kind of prices, and we can’t afford to absorb it,” owner Kelly Fox said. “So now we really don’t have a choice but to move over to the new location and hope for the best in six weeks.”

At Big B’s Texas BBQ, owner Brian Buechner spends most of his mornings trying to track down reasonably priced brisket, as well as baby back, beef and pork ribs, so he won’t have to make a similar decision.

“Every day I get up around 5:30, and my first stop is (wholesaler) Restaurant Depot,” he said. “My second call is to the suppliers to see if any meat came in that I can (purchase). And then I spend the morning driving around picking up meats for both stores.”

Barbecue restaurants are far from the only ones affected. At Good Pie pizzeria in Pawn Plaza, owner Vincent Rotolo is facing his own price problems.

“The only two proteins I have on the menu (right now) are meatballs and pepperoni, and both of them are going up by 30 percent,” he says.

As more restaurants prepare to reopen dining rooms, meat shortages and rising prices are forcing them to think on their feet. The Stove, a breakfast and lunch spot in Henderson, will offer a limited menu when it reopens on Friday.

“We took a lot of the meat items off, other than the stuff that I’m assured to get at the regular price,” chef and owner Antonio Nunez says. That means easily-frozen items, like sausage, will stay, while fresh meats, such as steaks, will have to wait for the market to stabilize.

As Brian Howard prepares to reopen his award-winning Sparrow + Wolf in early June, he’s confronting prices that have nearly doubled for some cuts of meat.

“In terms of menu development, it’s just about being nimble,” Howard says. “I think our menu will change fairly often, based on what we’re able to receive.”

That’s a bit easier for a chef like Howard, who’s adept at turning less popular cuts of meat into show-stopping dishes (like his signature lamb neck with red curry crepe and pickled vegetables). A pizzaiolo like Rotolo has fewer options.

“I can’t not have pepperoni,” Rotolo notes. “It’s my best-selling product.”

Nonetheless, the increase in his cost would mean raising the price of the topping from $2.50 to $4 per pie to preserve his profits. That’s something he’s not willing to do — at least not yet.

“For now I’m going to take the hit, because I’m hoping it’s temporary. And I’m going to look at things at the end of the month.”

At Big B’s, Buechner says if things don’t stabilize, he’d have to raise the price of brisket and other items by 50 percent just to remain profitable. That’s something he isn’t prepared to do, even if the alternatives are equally drastic.

“We’ve already discussed that we may have to shut down for a week. I don’t want to elevate my prices and scare a ton of our regular guests away just for us to make a buck. It’s not worth it, for the longevity of the restaurants and the brand.”

Improvement in sight

The situation is expected to start improving in about a month. Paul Savage, vice president of protein and strategic development for the restaurant supplier The Chef’s Warehouse, expects things to start easing next month, as meatpacking plants affected by COVID-19 get back up to speed.

“Mid-June things will start returning slowly back to normal,” he predicts. “But until then we’ve got about another month to get through.”

In a year plagued by uncertainty, Rotolo says these are the types of decisions he never expected to face.

“I thought I was prepared, but this caught me off guard. Every day is a new world and we’ll just have to adjust and do what’s fair, and do what’s right, and try to help my customers.”

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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