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June 2, 2021

B.T.’s Smokehouse straining under rising meat prices

Photo | Grant Welker Customers and workers inside B.T.'s Fried Chicken and BBQ in Worcester.

Brian Treitman is worried the rising cost of meat – made worse by an industry ransomware attack this week – is going to put a sustained strain on his two popular BBQ restaurants: B.T.’s Smokehouse in Sturbridge and B.T.’s Fried Chicken and BBQ in Worcester.

Photo | Little Outdoor Giants for Edible Boston/Edible Worcester
Brian Treitman, owner of B.T.'s Smokehouse in Sturbridge

“We’ve done two price hikes on our menu in the past six weeks. We’re 100% meat-based in the product that we serve, so we’re stuck with trying to keep our margins at least close to profitable,” said Treitman. “The question is, how do we figure this out so we’re not losing money and that we’re providing value to our customers?”

The Producer Price Index estimate for wholesale poultry is expected to increase between 13%-16% this year, according to the Economic Research Service from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Similarly, wholesale beef is expected to increase 1.5%-4.5% and wholesale pork 8.5%-11.5%. The Producer Price Index measures the average price change over time for prices paid to domestic producers by retailers like grocery stores and restaurants.

For restaurant owners like Treitman, the price increases directly affect his bottom line and force higher prices for consumers. He didn’t say whether the high prices would have a long-term impact on his restaurants, but he hopes the prices recover soon – even though there is little sign they will – so he can cover the current losses.

Last year, distributors faced similar rising costs exacerbated by the shutdown of two major poultry processing facilities. Treitman said a smaller cattle herd, high cost of grain, and shortage of drivers as factors contributing to the current upsurge in prices. 

“We had a spike last year when some of the plants shut down, but it wasn’t like this,” said Treitman. “It seems like it’s going to be a sustained hike where there’s no real end in sight.”

The spike in meat prices is expected to worsen slightly in light of an ransomware attack this week on Brazil meatpacker JBS SA, which disrupted the supply chain, even as the company’s operations were up and running by Wednesday.

The increase in unprocessed food prices elevates upfront costs, driving down revenue in an industry already struggling with the impact of the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association disclosed in its 2021 industry report that in 2020, the industry recorded sales $240 billion below the pre-pandemic forecasted number. 

Lynn Cheney, owner of Maker to Main

For Lynn Cheney, owner of the Maker to Main grocery store in Worcester that emphasizes selling locally sourced products, the national trend is reflected in regional processing backlogs and price increases.

“As far as meat prices are concerned, there’s no question that our local meat system has been impacted by COVID,” said Cheney in an interview. “Time slots to get protein processed right now are anywhere from six months to a year booked out even for local people working with the few processing plants within New England.”

Ultimately, the pressure placed on grocery stores and restaurants within the local food system attest to the deeper problems facing producers and suppliers at both a national and international level.

“You do the best you can in shopping prices, but this isn’t just one farmer or one location or one area of the country. This is across the globe that prices are skyrocketing,” said Cheney. “These costs are being passed down to the producer and then the grocery stores and restaurants and eventually lands on us as consumers.”

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June 3, 2021
I would not shy away from purchasing such a superior product due to a price increase. I visit your Worcester store weekly. Not aware or concerned about price increases!
June 2, 2021
My heart goes out to our local businesses who’ve been struggling this past year and are now faced with these hardships. I will continue to support our local restaurants.
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