Saigon Hustle, a Vietnamese drive-thru restaurant in Houston, has basically had trouble making its two main menu items, spring rolls and vermicelli bowls, since it opened in February. “We are now facing a shortage of rice paper and rice noodles,” said co-founder Cassie Ghaffar, adding that the situation has been going on for more than two months. It’s not just rice paper and vermicelli noodles: “We’ve experienced this with a lot of food products,” Ghaffar said. Just a few days ago, their supplier ran out of condensed milk, which is used in both versions of the restaurant’s ca phe sua da.
Rice paper may be one of many shortages right now, but it’s one example of a constant curveball thrown at small business owners who still face a confluence of COVID-related financial, labor and ingredient issues. For some restaurateurs across the country, the early pandemic hoarding isn’t over — it’s expanded to an ever-changing list of items, with imported ingredients posing a particular challenge. According to Ghaffar, several of the restaurateur’s friends are making excess necessities in garages and warehouses, stocking up when they find what they need. When distributors don’t supply the ingredients they need—sometimes, the options available may not match the restaurant’s needs—employees have to take over the search, which takes up more time and more resources.
Perry Cheung, owner of Phorage in Los Angeles, also struggles to wholesale rice paper. (Except for the recent discovery of vegan stir-fry sauces and gluten-free soy sauces.) Before the pandemic, it was easy to rely on his preferred brand, three ladies, which his wholesaler couldn’t offer due to container issues. In the past two For three months, Mr. Zhang drove to the San Gabriel Valley every week to buy rice paper. The retail supply chain does not appear to have been hit as much as wholesale, he said. (As of this writing, the three ladies rice paper is still out of stock at Walmart and World Market.)
Buying raw materials this way is not ideal. Since Saigon Hustle opened, Ghaffar and business partner Sandy Nguyen have seen a need for porters, who work full-time to bring supplies from their warehouses to restaurants. Space is small, so packs and dry goods need to be replenished from a separate storage area shared with other restaurants.But that porter is also now being asked to “stop at every grocery store on the road” [between drop-offs and pick-ups] And pick up rice noodles and rice paper everywhere,” Ghaffar said. Part of the reason, she says, is that grocery stores have put purchase limits on items that are in short supply—a store might say you can only buy five bags of noodles at a time, but a restaurant can buy only five bags of noodles at a time, she says. To buy six to seven bags of noodles.
For Cheung, buying retail rather than wholesale meant a 40% to 50% increase in costs. Since he’s shopping, there’s also an “opportunity cost of finding time for me to find Easter eggs and ship them back, all within LA’s transit range,” Cheung said. However, he sees the work as non-negotiable. “For a Vietnamese restaurant, you can’t live without spring rolls, so you have to — no matter what — find the product,” he said.
Likewise, about a month and a half ago, Bolero Restaurant in New York City learned of a rice paper shortage from its Asian dry goods distributor. They also stock up, but if they run out of rice paper to wrap their king crab wraps or spring rolls, they’d rather take them off the menu than use wheat wraps, “because that wouldn’t be Vietnamese,” Chef Matt said. Le-Khac said via email. He added that when it comes to the rarer morning dew rice paper, it’s thin enough to not need to be submerged in water because the moisture in the vegetables is enough to moisten it — Bolero has been buying supplies for three years.
For these restaurateurs, it’s just another part of running a restaurant now. The shortages have changed Cheung’s day-to-day work, but he concluded that part of being a business owner is finding solutions to keep things as optimal as possible. For Ghaffar, this is certainly a creative consideration for the future. “I don’t think it will get better anytime soon,” she said. “When we talk about expansion, it’s definitely hard to swallow.”