Photo courtesy of Ohio City Provisions
One of the most troublesome narratives to emerge during the Coronavirus pandemic has been the rise of fissures in the national supply chain resulting in meat shortages and price hikes.
Local is always better — better for the environment, better for the economy, better with respect to quality, selection and service — but in troubled times like these, doubly so. Not only are local butcher shops reaping the benefits of pumped-up consumer demand for pork, chicken and beef, they're doing so without having to raise prices thanks to vertical integration, shorter supply chains and/or longtime relationships with farmers in the region.
Walk into Ohio City Provisions on the near-west side of town and by all appearances it is business as usual. Behind the sparkling-clean glass-fronted coolers are shelves brimming with rosy-red beef short ribs, pink-hued pork sirloins, crimson lamb shanks and fistfuls of freshly ground beef.
“With respect to meat shortages, there’s the national side and then the local side,” explains owner Trevor Clatterbuck. “When the demand spiked two months ago, the national suppliers can’t increase capacity that quickly and there’s no inventory on hand to pull from. But we have inventory hanging in lockers, stuff in our freezers… We had been hoarding meat, so to say, and we were able to weather the initial surge.”
What isn’t raised at Wholesome Valley, the company farm in Amish Country, is produced on nearby land of partner farms and ranches. Those foods are sold not just at Ohio City Provisions, but also through the farm-share program Fresh Fork and at a small retail shop at the farm.
Like many of his colleagues in the meat business, Clatterbuck has seen an undeniable uptick in sales compared to this time last year. In March of 2019, generally a slow month for the shop, he estimates that he and his staff would break down two or three sides of beef per week. This year, that volume has jumped to six sides per week.
“Across the board we’ve been up,” he says. “The number of customers we have has gone up and the price per order has been up.”
But what hasn’t gone up is the price of those products. Comparing today’s receipts with those of two or three months ago, it appears that little has changed since the start of the pandemic.
“We haven’t increased our prices at all because none of the costs of raising my animals has increased and therefore it would just be gouging,” Clatterbuck says.
The view from Slavic Village is pretty much the same, reports Melissa Khoury of Saucisson, a butcher shop that sources all of its meat from small family farms located within 100 miles of its front door. Despite losing numerous wholesale restaurant accounts and having to transition an old-fashioned retail operation into one almost exclusively reliant on online ordering and curbside pickup, Saucisson is more than weathering the storm.
“We’re seeing new customers every week,” she reports. “I think people feel more comfortable shopping in smaller establishments for better quality meat and shopping conditions. I think it makes us smaller guys more appealing.”
By buying direct from small local farms, Saucisson has managed to sidestep the kinds of supply interruptions and delays that are making front page news.
“Dealing with local farms, we don’t foresee any meat shortages,” she says. “The larger companies are so much more fragile because it’s harder for them to implement changes and to adapt, but with these smaller farms, they are planning appropriately for this season and next. The animals are there.”
What’s more, she adds, the prices have stayed rock steady while those of the massive commodity brands at big grocery stores continue to rise.
“Thanks to these smaller farms, we’re not going to see that spike in pricing,” Khoury states. “Our pork prices aren’t increasing, unlike pork on a national scale, which is already up 6 to 8 percent.” At $5.29 per pound, she adds, the local grass-fed ground beef in her shop actually sells for less than meat from industrial processing plants halfway across the country.
Since 2018, shoppers have relied on the Farmer’s Rail in Akron for high-quality poultry, pork, lamb and beef, all raised on land owned or leased by owners Melanie and Jeff Brunty. Business has always been good, but lately it’s through the roof, says Melanie.
“We have experienced quadruple the business over the past seven weeks,” she says, adding that 11 new employees have been hired and a second shift introduced.
Fortunately, Brunty Farms, which supplies 80- to 85-percent of the meat sold in the store, has been preparing to expand, so the increased demand has been met all along the way by equal supply.
“We had plenty of animals in the pipeline, so we’ve been able to keep up pretty much," Melanie says. “So many people are being so panicked about meat, but I think it’s a little different for us because we’re Brunty Farms too, so we’re the supply chain for our meat.”
In addition to the Brunty Farms line of products, the Farmer’s Rail also sells a more cost-conscious line of commercially produced meats like chicken breasts. As large processing plants shut down, the price of some of those products has risen by as much as 30 percent, reports management.
Despite these wild fluctuations, that commercial product will almost always undercut the free-range birds that the Bruntys so lovingly raise, which perhaps is the single biggest deterrent to greatly expanding the local food supply chain. We’re forever driven by economies of scale that makes it cheaper and easier to get meat from across the country than from two counties over.
“The percentage of meats that we and others like us are producing compared to the amount of meat that’s consumed in Ohio is a very small percentage. It’s a fraction,” says Clatterbuck. “The average consumer doesn’t know what goes into raising, slaughtering or cutting an animal.”
But the more time people like Clatterbuck, Brunty and Khoury get to spend in front of a new customer, be it during a pandemic or not, the more likely they are to switch sides.
“It comes down to consumers being more educated about the process and wanting to spend more on food because they appreciate how and why and where it was raised,” says Brunty. “It’s been great to get these new customers, who come back and say, that was the best steak or chicken breast I ever had. I believe that because of the experience we’ve given them, the quality of product we’ve given them, they are coming back.”