Leonard Botello IV hasn’t had much time for anything but sleeping, exercising, working long hours at his Truth BBQ, and having a drink at the end of the night. Such is the life of a pitmaster who’s trying to keep a business afloat while restrictions clamp his capabilities and a life-threatening disease still lingers in public.
He and other food providers across the country have faced many of the same obstacles, from being unable to operate at full capacity to having to pay bills and taxes despite orders that have stunted profits. A new one, brought to life in recent weeks, is about the thing that’s most important to his business: the food itself. See, Botello sources beef and pork from distributors like Ben E. Keith Foods and Ruffino Meats, and those businesses aren’t getting as much from ranchers.
A normal call from a distributor’s representative might include the words “grab what you can grab.” That rep may even tell Botello to try other avenues to get product.
“It’s bad when they’re saying ‘Go get meat from another company.’”
When restrictions were placed on food and drink establishments in March, ostensibly and temporarily ending Harris County’s storied culture of eating from restaurants, distributors canceled orders. Nationally, meat distribution slowed because processing plants shut down or cut workload, mostly because COVID-19 had run wild through those facilities.
That means less meat on the market, and with restaurants and markets open and demanding product, it also means prices going way up to historic levels.
For example, there’s beef cutout, or essentially the value of processed beef. Between January and February, Choice-grade cutout was valued at an average of about $210, the low end of the five-year average that tops out at about $235. As of Friday, the average value of Choice-grade cutout was $460. On the USDA’s line graph showing these values, the 2020 line soars past the graph since the Y axis stops at $360.
“We are experiencing dramatic price increases and shortages of supply,” says Scott Moore, co-owner of Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue in Tomball. He’s paying $6.05 per pound for brisket, about 30 to 35 percent more than usual; not only that, he didn’t want to be left out in the cold, so he bought a one-time, 30-day supply from his distributor and turned a trailer into a temporary refrigeration storage space to get through the month.
Because of the massive brisket buy, Tejas has raised prices temporarily. A $23 pound of brisket is now $25, and the possibility of it climbing to $30 or more is very real.
“I’m gonna hold out for as long as I can,” says Botello, who’s selling his brisket from his Houston location (Brenham is closed temporarily) for the usual $23 per pound. “It’s gonna be hard to charge people $28 a brisket, especially when a majority of the population isn’t working."
The meat shortage isn’t just affecting smokehouses. Grocery stores have been increasing prices in some cases. In most, they’re simply limiting what can be bought per customer. H-E-B is keeping brisket, frozen raw beef burgers, frozen ground beef, and frozen chicken to two per customer. Fresh chicken is limited to four packages per customer. For now, H-E-B says it’s not hiking up meat prices.
But anything can change and just might, considering many plants remain closed and supply remains low. Still, experts claim this is no time to panic and meat is simply being disrupted at the moment.
As for local spots, they’re hoping to get through the month with the beef and pork they have. Beyond that, they’re thinking about experimenting with more readily available processes and cuts, some whose prices may have actually dropped (like, say, chicken wings).
“You never know what’s gonna be available, so you gotta come up with something,” says Botello, who says he’s been spending some long nights at Truth messing around with other cuts. “We can switch it over, and it won’t be too dramatic. Just no Impossible meat or mystery meat.”