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A bbq lunch picnic from Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, North Carolina
A bbq lunch picnic from Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, North Carolina
Forrest Mason

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COVID-19 Calls Out Flaws in the Local Food Supply Chain

Dispatches from around the Carolinas

Chain grocery stores have been consistently wiped of meat, bread, flour, butter, and produce for the duration of COVID-19. Some of the largest processing plants in the country have closed due to outbreaks. While restaurants in North and South Carolina slowly reopen in phases, the food supply chain continues to figure itself out.

“With agricultural production and processing slowing down tremendously, supermarkets are seeing shortages on basic necessities all over the country,” says chef Drew Smith, of Kō•än, in Cary. “We will soon need to rely much more heavily on local and sustainable meats and produce — and the people who grow these products rely on us,” he adds. With the launch of Ko•mmunity Hub, a reimagined supply chain, Smith is able to focus on broadening both the local supply chain and the community’s awareness of local goods.

“This pandemic has revealed fragility of our supply chain,” says Jennifer Curtis, co-owner of Firsthand Foods, a women-owned meat business in Durham specializing in local and pasture-raised beef, lamb and pork. Because of COVID-19, the business took a dramatic shift from the majority of business coming from restaurant and food accounts into the majority of business currently coming from retail stores and home deliveries.

Food supply chain flaws have been clearly visible for quite some time but have never been addressed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, pending on how you view it, COVID-19 has blatantly presented the issues on a platter. “Bottleneck around small processing plants has always been an issue,” says Curtis. Exposed holes in food systems have urged consumers to look deeper into what’s available locally. “Farmers closer to home are more resilient to pandemics and natural disasters,” says Curtis.

During the early days of COVID-19, pitmasters and barbecue restaurants witnessed a shortage of specific meats, brisket included. Wyatt Dickson, co-owner of Picnic, a whole-hog barbecue joint in Durham, notes of stockpiling brisket when it was available. “You take what you can get when you can get it,” Dickson says. Currently, while not a shortage of brisket, the price has doubled within the past two weeks. This is the case for Lewis Barbecue, in Charleston, too. Ben Garbee, general manager of Lewis Barbecue, notes of the frequent runs around town and limitations on brisket. “It’s a wakeup call to everyone about these factories and food processing plants,” Garbee says. “Plants aren’t as foolproof and stable as everyone thought they were.”

Wyatt Dickson cooking a whole hog at Picnic in Durham
Wyatt Dickson cooking a whole hog at Picnic in Durham
Forrest Mason

Dickson isn’t concerned about pork, however, as the pigs for the restaurant are locally sourced from partner Ryan Butler’s Green Button Farm. “I think the popularity and appeal of going outside of the traditional supply chain will increase,” he says, further stating that working with local farms, such as Butler’s, will become “more attractive.”

In Garland, North Carolina, Matt Register, owner of Southern Smoke BBQ, faces hurdles of small town scarcity of goods and sometimes deliveries don’t come as expected — or at all. “We don’t have the convenience of 20 groceries stores in our area like larger cities do,” says Register. “It’s difficult at times when you can’t get a product and you have to adapt with what you have — but in a way it has forced us to be creative with the simplest of dishes.”

Nourish Cafe + Juice Bar lunch bowls at The Market at Cedar Point
Nourish Cafe + Juice Bar lunch bowls at The Market at Cedar Point
Nourish Juice Bar + Cafe

Brandon Shepard, chef of Urban Street Eats, a mobile food truck in Eastern North Carolina, and Nourish Juice Bar + Cafe, in Emerald Isle, faces weekly issues of getting specific products in a timely manner. “I’m completely out of product at the juice bar waiting on the delivery truck,” says Shepard, further noting when he first ordered, half of the order was missing. The solution for Shepard’s issue was for products to be subbed out. “Basically I get some mystery box hoping it’s what I’m looking for,” he adds, crossing his fingers that the quality surpasses his standards.

For a small business trying to desperately stay afloat, inconsistency doesn’t attract a steady flow of customers. “We are already having to rack our brains on how to get people out here to make profit and now we have to try to keep them coming with an inconsistent final product,” he says. “It’s the new world we live in though adapt on the fly — or get swallowed up.”

Julia Simon, owner of Nourish, a plant-based meal delivery service in Charlotte, and member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a grassroots effort to help connect the food chain in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, notes that sourcing dry goods has been a huge challenge for her business. For instance, a type of brown rice pasta went out of stock recently and was not expected back for several weeks. “We’ve had to do a lot of experimenting on the fly and be transparent with customers regarding textures and flavors being different as we scramble on the weekly to learn new products,” says Simon. “Freshness on non-local produce has been less than stellar and we’ve had to omit ingredients and get very noisy with our sales people when deliveries are not up to snuff,” she adds.

Chef Sean Fowler, of Mandolin, holding a chicken on his farm in Raleigh
Chef Sean Fowler, of Mandolin, holding a chicken on his farm in Raleigh
Josh Manning

Society has mostly been patient during COVID-19, as the new normal of adaptation and creativity sets in. Consumers are learning quickly that they can’t always get what they want, when they want it — this especially proves true during a pandemic. For chefs like Sean Fowler of Mandolin, in Raleigh, it’s a different situation because of the sheer fact that he turns to his farm for ingredients. Fowler’s approach has been geared towards shifting and what’s currently available instead of relying on specifics. “I’ve never had salmon on the menu, but I’ve always had North Carolina fish,” Fowler says. The net gain in the end is promising, as Fowler notes he had half a dozen people call him during COVID-19 to ask about raising chickens, as his farm eggs were a local hit.

At Alimentari at Left Bank in Raleigh, a restaurant inside Transfer Co. Food Hall serving whole-butchered meats and fresh pastas, meat isn’t a concern as it’s locally and sustainably sourced from Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw — and for once, demand is way up. “We are unable to scale at the rate in which we need to to keep up with the demand right now,” says Drew Hannon, co-owner of Alimentari. “Slaughterhouses are not taking any new clients until next year as they’re so backed up,” he adds, noting that the silver lining is the educational component of consumers learning to shop smart and understanding who their suppliers are. “You can find good, local products through smaller shops like ours,” says Hannon.

Caroline Lindley, Vice President of marketing at Lindley Mills, an organic specialty flour mill in Graham, North Carolina, shares that their online retail business surged to 10 times what they normally sell during COVID-19. “I hope people will realize where flour and really, all food, comes from,” Lindley says. “We now have people driving over 50 miles to pick up our flour,” further noting that customers are now thinking about flour as an ingredient — instead of just a pantry staple.

While an ever-changing landscape, many chefs and purveyors are hopeful for positive change. It’s a wakeup call for everyone in regards to large factories and food processing plants, as these big players are not as foolproof and stable as everyone thought they were. “My vision is we merge with a renewed interest in investment of regional food systems that care for farmers,” says Curtis. “One exciting thing about this time is that we are getting our products into the hands of new customers,” she says.

Kō•än [Official]
Ko•mmunity Hub [Official]
Firsthand Foods [Official]
Picnic [Official]
Lewis Barbecue [Official]
Green Button Farm [Official]
Southern Smoke BBQ [Official]
Urban Street Eats [Official]
Nourish Juice Bar + Cafe [Official]
Nourish [Official]
Piedmont Culinary Guild [Official]
Mandolin [Official]
Alimentari at Left Bank [Official]
Transfer Co. Food Hall [Official]
Left Bank Butchery [Official]
Lindley Mills [Official]

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