Flint, MI— “Due to rising costs we have to raise prices. Everything on this menu is 1.00 extra. I’m sorry for any inconvenience,” reads a handwritten note taped to the plexiglass by the register at Beirut Restaurant and Grocery.
“To be honest with you, I hate to do it but between the wages and the price of goods it’s like … there’s no money there, you know? It’s just–it’s crazy,” said Sam Jawhari, owner of the middle eastern eatery at Flint Farmers’ Market.
Jawhari initially raised his menu prices by 50 cents in Jan. 2021, but the cost of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs has continued to climb as supply chain disruptions hit Flint, and he had to raise his prices again to keep a small margin of profit.
“The meat (price) has almost doubled,” said Jawhari, who has also had to do his own shopping to track down items he used to count on from his three Dearborn-based distributors.
“I’m having a hard time finding things,” he said. “Where you would call this vendor and they used to deliver, now I find myself chasing down inventory.”
And Jawhari is not alone.
Many businesses have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but as positive case numbers dropped over the summer, a greater demand for goods and services grew.
“People wanted to go back to normal,” said FlintPrints manager, Ellen Burgess.
Unfortunately, especially in the case of specialty stores that rely on overseas sourcing, the demand came at a time when American ports are in crisis and the trucking industry is some 80,000 drivers short of meeting delivery needs.
“It’s a problem,” said Sam Park, owner of Seoul Market, another local grocer reliant on global shipping routes. The majority of Park’s products come from Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, he said.
One of Seoul Market’s distributors, Chicago Food Corporation, allows Park to pick up his orders directly instead of waiting for truck deliveries.
“So we’ve started driving to Chicago,” he said. “We go pick it up.”
Lilia Alberto, owner of A&G Market Tacos, also found herself visiting her vendor instead of receiving deliveries.
“The (taco) shells we use, the company just completely stopped coming here,” Alberto said. “So we ended up having to go over there to get those because they did not have enough employees to be able to get routes going for a little while.”
Alberto said that the vendor has since restarted a route to her restaurant, but the rising costs of protein that Jawhari mentioned have had a lasting effect on her menu, too.
“Our customers are used to a certain price. We had to take away all of the specials so that we didn’t have to raise the prices,” she said.
“When we talk about the effective supply chain, the first question is how resilient these local businesses were before the pandemic,” said Dr. Azadeh Sadeghi, assistant professor of supply chain management at UM-Flint. “What were the vulnerabilities of their supply chain network before the pandemic and before the disruption?”
Sadeghi explained that supply chains can be thought of as “networks of networks” in which each manufacturer, distributor, business, etc. is a node. The more connection points between each node, the stronger or more robust the network, and therefore the more resilient the overall supply chain.
Sadeghi was researching transportation resilience at Ohio University prior to her position at UM-Flint, and she pointed to transportation as part of Flint businesses’ current problem.
“Transportation infrastructure, in fact, is one of the main components of the supply chain system because it provides access to different services,” she said. “And transportation disruption can quickly scale to supply chain disruption.”
Sadeghi noted that U.S. Department of Transportation reports she reviewed as part of her prior research said that the major transportation mode in the Midwest is roadways.
“Roadways frequently driven by trucks,” Sadeghi added. “But one of the issues before the pandemic in the Midwest was lack of truck drivers.”
Now Flint’s businesses are seeing the impact of that weakness in the local supply chain, making up for the truck driver shortage by going to distributors themselves.
Sadeghi suggested that one strategy to build greater resilience in the future is to move to “multimodal” transportation.
“Use railroads when possible,” she offered. “And invest to expand railroads.”
But such investment, even if it is on the horizon, is not an immediate fix for some of Flint’s small businesses.
“I think with COVID coming in, we got a rude awakening that we’re too dependent on outside sources,” said Jawhari of Beirut Restaurant and Grocery.
But other Flint businesses have been able to get around that issue by sourcing American-made products instead of relying on overseas suppliers.
“We have to pay more,” said Ellen Burgess, manager at FlintPrints, of steering clients toward U.S. manufactured items. “But we’ve found that many of our clients are willing to do that too.”
Burgess said that in the promotional materials side of the commercial printing business, price tends to be the number one factor in clients’ decisions, then speed.
But because many promotional items—think mugs, glassware, and magnets—tend to come from Chinese suppliers, she said, when COVID-related shipping delays meant weeks or even months for those items to come in, clients were willing to trade price for speed.
“In the traditional supply chain, minimizing the cost was important,” explained Dr. Sadeghi. “But then what is the cost of waiting for an item when it’s not available? It’s a lost sale.”
“It took time to realize this wasn’t just happening to us,” said Burgess, who added that she hopes to see clients continue to seek out American-made products even if global logistics return to pre-pandemic norms.
But Flint’s specialty grocers and restaurants don’t have the same alternatives as other businesses.
“I’m a Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery store,” said Jawhari. “It’s stuff you can’t find here.”
Ultimately, Jawhari said, he’s making do with the solutions available, but he still laments having to raise prices for customers who have supported his business through the pandemic.
“But I think people are understanding,” he said. “Thank God we are surviving.”