When Jennifer Davidson totaled up costs recently for her Harvest Thyme restaurant in downtown Gainesville, she got a shock. Supplies and ingredients, which normally ran about 30 percent of her costs, had jumped to 44 percent.
A figure that high, she said, “means you’re gonna go out of business unless you do something.”
She’s not alone. Restaurant owners across the area are dealing with skyrocketing prices for basic staples. In a recent Bloomberg news article, analysts said beef was up 19 percent last year and sugar had reached a 30-year high. And there is no end in sight yet; analysts predict commodity costs will rise another 3 percent over the next six months.
That is a headache for all restaurants, but those that cater to the low end of the price scale have less room to offset the rising expenses. All of which has owners like Davidson and her husband, Mike, looking for ways to cut costs without cutting too many corners.
One of the most common responses is to seek out new suppliers. Jacob Idhe, who co-owns Boca Fiesta and has just opened a new restaurant, The Diner, both in the Sun Center, is among those doing more haggling with distributors and he looks for the best deal. “You go back and forth until one of them says, ‘all right,’ ” he said.
“It’s a juggling exercise all the time,” agreed Nikita Patalinghug, who runs Maui Teriyaki at 34th Street near Archer Road. To offset a 35 percent jump in the price of chicken, one of her basic staples, she chooses between three vendors. “I try to see who has the best deal each week,” she says.
Harvest Thyme’s Davidson has even taken to getting some of her supplies at Sam’s Club. She takes a checklist and compares prices with what her distributors charge.
Some restaurateurs are getting their ingredients closer to home. John Drum, whose Tempo Bistro on Northwest 13th Street opened last year, relies on local farmers for some of his produce. “We look as close to our community as possible for our ‘product,’” he says.
Idhe and Diner co-owner, Warren Oakes, are doing the same. “This could be great for the local food movement,” predicted Oakes. They are even getting into the act themselves, growing some items, such as cayenne, habanero and ghost peppers, at home.
At the same time, owners are adamant that they won’t skimp on quality for cheaper supplies. “If you start using cheap stuff, then it goes downhill,” said Idhe.
“We don’t want to sacrifice the quality of our food,” agrees Davidson, who points to her refusal to move away from the Boar’s Head brand meats she uses in her sandwiches, even though other brands cost less. There might be some adjustments in things like serving sizes—for instance, using one tomato instead of two on a sandwich—but “we kept that tomato on there.”
While ingredients make up the main costs for area restaurant owners, they’re looking at other areas to trim. For instance, Tempo Bistro has made a point of increasing its energy efficiency in recent months.
Some owners are trimming the one cost they can most directly control—themselves. Davidson, for instance, said she and her husband have cut back their personal spending in the past year.
Patalinghug took that a step farther, not paying herself in about six months. “It’s pretty sad, but you do what you got to do,” she says. “Going under is not an option.”