After surviving COVID-19 shutdowns, labor shortages and supply-chain issues over the last two years, New Jersey’s embattled dining industry must now weather the latest storm aiming to drown local restaurants: Crippling inflation.
While customers across the Garden State are feeling the crunch of increasing menu prices at many eateries, the summer’s 40-year-high inflation rate is hitting restaurants even harder, spiking food costs to double and triple the prices they saw just a few months ago. The culprit is a combination of lingering supply-chain issues (many caused by the pandemic) mixed with historically high job and wage growth among consumers. In other words, more people have money to buy goods at a time when there are fewer goods, thus prices rise.
Restaurants have been forced to find ways to stay afloat while maintaining profitability, and for many it’s a lose-lose situation: Either they raise menu prices too high to keep up with food costs and risk alienating customers, or keep prices the same and fall deeper into the red. For those cafes, taverns and food trucks still reeling from a severe downturn in business in 2020, inflation could be the final nail.
NJ Advance Media talked to several local restaurants this past week, who all remarked on the unpredictable fluctuation of prices and availability of goods from their providers, pointing out several key items whose prices have jumped higher than ever before. Here are 10 price increases that have rocked the Garden State restaurant industry.
Chicken: 300% increase
Nearly every restaurant NJ Advance Media talked to mentioned one key ingredient that has skyrocketed in price: Chicken. Anita Amin, owner of Indian restaurant Masala Bay in Somerset, says she was paying $27 for a 40-pound bag of chicken in 2020. Now she’s paying $108.
“I cannot wrap my head around that one,” Amin said. “I just cannot.”
In response, Amin has raised prices on several items. Her bowls, stacked with greens, grains, veggies and meat, now start at $10.99. Most customers have been understanding of the increase, but not all.
“Once in a while people complain, but those are the people that are not living with reality,” Amin said. “There’s no way I can sell somebody a bowl for $8 and make any kind of a profit.”
Flour: 115% increase
Masala Bay uses flour it to bake naan and make samosas. Amin used to pay less than $7 for a 25-pound bag of all-purpose flour at Costco in 2020. That same bag now costs her more than double, at $15.
“Even my samosa I used to sell it for $2.25,” Amin said. “Right now it’s at $3.90 because flour has gotten so expensive. Every single thing is expensive right now.”
French fries: 156% increase
French fries are a staple at The Lomo Truck, a Peruvian restaurant with a brick-and-mortar location in Woodland Park as well as multiple food trucks. Lomo saldato, the dish that gave the restaurant its name, consists of beef sautéed with red onions and tomatoes over french fries and fried rice.
While a 30-pound box of French fries cost $16 as recently as three weeks ago, owner Cesar Valdivia says he most recently paid $41 per box. His main location can go through 20 boxes a week at the main location alone.
“And it’s limited,” Valdivia said. “This week I had to peel and cut raw potatoes.”
Soy bean oil: 110% increase
What about the oil used to cook those fries? Compounding the rise in the price of fries is the hike in soy bean oil, which has more than doubled from $20 for a five-gallon container to $42 in the last six months.
“You win some, you lose some,” Valdivia said. “Just has to be more wins than losses.”
Eggs: 100% increase
Rey De La Cruz, the owner of breakfast and sandwich spot Salt Pepper Ketchup in Hawthorne, says he was paying $60 for a box of 360 eggs as recently as March. Now he’s paying $120. As a result, he’s slightly increased prices on his sandwiches, chopped cheeses and breakfast dishes.
“Everything has gone up, every week,” De La Cruz said. “People have to accept the food industry is also going up in pricing.”
Beef: 100% increase
Chofi Taco in Union City and Monmouth Beach uses classic chuck for their signature birria tacos. They used to order that beef from Neiman Ranch, a provider based in California that emphasized sustainability. But after previously paying $3.50 a pound for chuck, Chofi Taco saw the price jump to $7 a pound a few months ago because of inflation.
Chofi Taco had to switch providers to maintain profitability.
“We decided to go with not a lesser quality, but lesser sustainable product,” Chofi Taco owner Patrick Flammia said. “It kind of hurts. In the restaurant industry you want to be proponent of sustainability. The sustainability of the restaurant has to come first.”
Flammia says some ingredients have started to come down in price, but that beef seems to be staying especially high.
“There’s only so much you can charge for a taco without people starting to think that you’re crazy,” Flammia said.
Avocados: 122% increase
An essential ingredient for Mexican dishes, avocados have become so expensive that Chofi Taco no longer includes a complimentary serving of them on their tacos.
Flammia says he was paying $45 for a case of 42 avocados. Now that same case costs more than $100.
Customers can still get avocado on their tacos. It just costs $1 more. Chofi has also raised its price for guacamole to adjust, which has led to fewer sales at the flagship Union City location.
Limes: 125% increase
Limes are also a key component to most dishes on the Chofi Taco menu. After typically paying $40 for a case of 170 limes in the spring, the price jumped all the way to $90.
And as the price of the fruit dropped, so did the quality.
“Like two weeks ago the limes were awful,” Flammia said. “There’s no juice in them.”
Butter: 62% increase
Jersey City’s Milk Sugar Love makes some of the best ice cream in New Jersey — it checked in at No. 2 in NJ.com’s latest ice cream rankings. That requires high-quality butter for fudge and other sauces, and that doesn’t come cheap.
Owner Emma Taylor was paying $3.05 a pound for butter in 2020. It’s up to $4.95 today. She tried working with different butters, but the taste was never the same. She instituted small price increases and customers haven’t always been receptive.
“I just keep hoping it’s going to end,” Taylor said. “It’s like being on a roller coaster. At some point the ride has to end.”
Ribs: 50% increase
St. Louis-style ribs are one of the most popular items at Mutiny BBQ, which has been a hit since it opened at the end of 2021. But the rising costs of getting those ribs has complicated things for owner Tom Dunphy. It was normal for him to get them for $4 a pound around when they opened, now they’re around $6.
“It completely changes the dynamics of how we run our business. We have to be really smart. Gone are the days of just having a standing order with the same vendors every single week. We have to be shopping around, we have to be price-comparing, we have to be kind of pitting vendors against each other sometimes.”
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.