Coronavirus meat shortage threatens Kansas City BBQ joints

Kansas City barbecue restaurants are facing supply challenges amid COVID-19

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The nation's meat shortage is hitting restaurants in the Midwest as some popular cuts begin to grow scarce.

Barbecue capital Kansas City is a prime example of the supply issue. Meat suppliers are low on stock or have completely empty coolers after the shuttering of key processing plants as plant workers have contracted the coronavirus.

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As a result, common meat cuts such as pork butts and beef brisket have jumped in price, which spells trouble for local barbecue joints where these are staples.

"In Kansas City, being out of brisket is a big deal," said Terry Hyer, the chief operating officer at Zarda Bar-B-Q, in an interview with The Kansas City Star.

Hyer hasn't raised prices at his restaurants, but he told the publication that the price of brisket flats nearly doubled in one week.

"We hate raising prices. We absolutely hate it," he explained. "But right now we’re understanding there is a new normal in almost everything. And it looks like there is a new normal in what we have to pay for protein."

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Others are remedying this supply issue by changing menus around.

Plowboys Barbeque has had to resort to serving smaller briskets and ribs it secured with a locked contract. The company has also recently introduced chicken wings to its customers.

"We may end up not serving brisket at some point if we can’t afford to bring it in," Plowboys' owner Todd Johns told the Kansas City Star. "Brisket is $6.50 a pound, which is more than what people are paying for ribeye steaks right now in the grocery store… If we can encourage people to purchase the proteins that we are able to get and get at a good price, then we can help keep the cost down for them, too."

"With pork and beef, we're kind of like snipers. Every time we find something, we try to snag it," he added. "But everyone else is doing the same thing. You've just got to realize there will be a time when you just can't get product."

Over at Smokehouse Barbecue, ribs are no longer an option, according to the restaurant's Director of Operations Josh Ghasemi.

"We always sell beef ribs and prime beef short ribs. We're not going to be able to sell those anymore," he told the Star. "We're in the Midwest and we've been cooped up all these months and we're ready to get out in the backyard and smoke some ribs or light up the barbecue. And unfortunately, we're going to have to wait."

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And it’s not just Smokehouse that’s having a hard time serving beef. Wendy's is struggling to keep some menu items in stock, and grocery stores like Costco and Kroger are limiting how many packages of meat customers may buy.

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Paul Mies, co-owner of the meat supply company Mies Family Food told the Star that barbecue restaurants may need to purchase frozen cuts over fresh to make it through the pandemic. He also noted that Kansas City restaurants that closed down may not be able to find an adequate meat supply to reopen – which is something that could be devastating as more restaurants have begun limited dine-in service.

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A recent report by CoBank predicts that meat plant closures and production slowdowns will cause "a bottleneck in the U.S. meat and livestock supply chain," and will be most noticeable by Memorial Day weekend.

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"Meat supplies for retail grocery stores could shrink by nearly 30 percent this Memorial Day, leading to retail pork and beef price inflation as high as 20 percent relative to prices last year," the report reads.