Soaring meat prices, a tough sell for barbecue masters

By Jeremy Harlan, CNN

For about twenty minutes, Alex Barbosa laid out his full menu – written in permanent marker on peach-colored butcher paper – before having to start removing parts of it.

” Sorry madam. We’ve come out of the burnt ends already, ”Barbosa, owner of the Barbosa’s Barbeque mobile barbecue trailer, told the customer standing in front of his trailer turned into a small business. “They were very popular today and we had a big order. “

Selling meat is nothing new for the Texan from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who moved to Denver in 2019. In the nineteen months he served smoked meats in town, Barbosa quickly attracted rave reviews of these artisanal barbecue cravings. They regularly line up to devour his signature beef brisket, homemade sausages and moist smoked turkey breast that he may or may not dip in a little melted butter before serving.

“Poultry and butter go well together,” jokes Barbosa.

“We were losing money every day we cut breasts. ”

Lighthearted moments have been rarer for Barbosa and other pitmasters across the country this year. They have seen the cost of their staples: beef, pork and poultry steadily increase since the pandemic began last year. And while most of the food industry has experienced the pain, pitmasters believe the price increases are the most dramatic for barbecue restaurant owners.

“[Meat] is our main ingredient, ”says Rodney Scott, owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. “All of these protein prices have gone up and it’s a challenge for all of us in this industry. “

The cost of meats increased 12.6% between September 2020 and September 2021, according to unadjusted data from the Consumer Price Index. The cost of pork increased 12.7% over the same period. Poultry prices rose 6.1%, while overall beef prices rose the most at 17.6%. Roast beef, the brisket category, has increased 20.8% in the past 12 months.

“When we started the business in Denver [in March 2020], USDA premium breast, we were getting it for around $ 3.19 to $ 3.29 a pound, ”says Barbosa. “Now we’re looking at around $ 5.59 a pound. “

At this price, Barbosa took her beloved breast off the menu.

“We could have increased our prices to $ 35- $ 40 a pound to keep margins where they needed to be to keep the business operating. But, you know, at the end of the day, I don’t want to charge anyone that much.

Across town, Chris Nicki faced the same dilemma.

“It’s a little hard not to have beef brisket as a Texan barbecue restaurant,” says Nicki, who opened Hank’s Texas Barbecue in February 2019. “We were stuck. I couldn’t raise the prices more than I had. But we were losing money every day we cut breasts.

Two and a half years after opening Hank’s, Nicki paid her staff her last salary and closed her barbecue restaurant for good in August. The same butcher’s paper he used to wrap the wet brisket now covers the restaurant windows.

“The prices were astronomical. And on top of that, there were weeks where we couldn’t get things, ”says Nicki. “There were times when I couldn’t have ribs and pork. People were coming in and they didn’t understand it because they could see them at the grocery store.

“And I can go buy it at the grocery store for that price, but we’re not going to hit our margin if we do that.”

Increase in costs, decrease in supply

Price increases and decreased availability of meat are directly related to the level of processing in the supply chain.

According to the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing meat processors, companies suffer from a common problem during the pandemic: the lack of workers.

“There is a critical labor shortage that is slowing production, making goods scarce,” Sarah Little, spokesperson for NAMI, told CNN in an email. “Retailers and food services then have to compete for a finite amount of meat to ensure a constant supply to consumers. This competition has driven up prices for consumers.

But the industry drew strong criticism last year, especially from the White House, over its practices and the continued rise in meat prices.

“If you look at this market, what is striking is that for beef, poultry and pork, 55-85% of the market is controlled by the top four producers in these industries,” said Brian, director. of the National Economic Council. Deese, told reporters during a White House briefing on September 8.

“When you see this level of consolidation and the increase in prices, it raises concerns about profits from the pandemic. “

Citing a report from the United States Department of Agriculture, Deese said the four largest meat processing companies in the United States achieved record or near record profits in the first half of 2021.

“The real concern we have is that consumers are facing higher prices and producers are not being paid more,” Deese said.

In a bid to help quell rising meat costs, the White House has announced plans to enforce antitrust laws, investigate possible pricing among major meat processors, and create more competition in the industry.

In response to Deese’s pandemic profit claims, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, Inc., one of America’s four largest meat processing companies, reported Shane Miller’s July testimony to CNN on group chairman for the company’s beef and pork unit, before the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Consumer demand for finished beef outstripped our ability to supply it, and there were more live cattle than the market could harvest, resulting in lower prices for live beef,” Miller said. to senators. “And on the consumer side, the limited ability to supply finished products to meet high demand has driven prices up. “

JBS Foods, National Beef, and Cargill, Inc. did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story.

Regardless of what is said and what is done in Washington, DC, pitmasters like Barbosa, Scott and Nicki just want prices to stop rising before more barbecue restaurants are forced to shut down for good.

Barbosa has been able to stay at corporate catering events and serve barbecues at music festivals. Scott, a recently inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, hopes to expand his operations with a fourth location in the coming months.

“I just came from ‘mom-and-pop’ surgery, I know,” Scott said. “I feel pain at the thought of wondering about higher prices and arriving overnight.

“Help us and create a balance where we can all stay in business and continue to be an addition to the economy. “

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