Industry wide labor shortages and supply-chain issues are still causing major headaches for owners and operators throughout the restaurant industry.
It’s forced restaurants like Mac’s Speed Shop to pivot again at this stage of the COVID-19 recovery, including paring back menu offerings and finding new sources for kitchen equipment needed to open new units.
Mac’s Speed Shop, which currently operates units across the Carolinas, serves cold beer and barbecue to customers seven days a week. Co-president Shang Skipper says that’s becoming pricier given the steady increase in costs for popular items such as chicken wings and beef brisket.
Skipper says Mac’s had to remove about 20 percent of its total menu because they simply “can’t do these things.”
Items were removed for being too expensive, either because the cost of food made it unprofitable or the price of labor was too great to keep churning out certain dishes.
“it’s just too much on the kitchen; too much on the staff. It takes too many hours. We just can’t do it,” he says. “So, we’ve taken an approach of what can we execute at a high level and ensure that people are getting the full experience?”
This led Mac’s to focus on dishes that take less time to prep and are more easily executed. Mac’s also increases menu prices on chicken wings and brisket. And while the increased cost of chicken wings should come as no surprise, the cost of beef skyrocketed in recent months, caused in large part to a drought across the American West.
According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the aggregate national herd has shrunk in numbers, and the animals that do make it to market weigh an average of 15 pounds less than animals from the previous year.
“We’ve been essentially losing money on those two items,” Skipper says. “So, it’s unfortunate and we don’t want to do it. We hope that we can bring the pricing back sooner rather than later. But at this point, we have no choice. We at least need to break even on those items.”
Skipper says he’s been told by suppliers beef prices may not start to fall for up to a year given the ongoing drought in parts of the country. This means unfortunately, he says, menu prices on items such as brisket and chicken wings will remain high. A self-described optimist, Skipper says although conditions aren’t ideal at the moment, the market could change.
“Cattle herds can increase rather quickly, the demand for beef could go down,” he says. “You never know what could happen with natural cycles.”
Supply chain issues aren’t the only problem Mac’s is facing. Like other restaurants, it’s struggled to fully staff locations. In response, Mac’s started to offer better pay and benefits than it ever has, Skipper says.
Per the most recent U.S. Labor Department, only 194,000 jobs were added in September, falling well below Dow Jones estimate of 500,000. On top of fewer jobs being added, more Americans are quitting their jobs than any other time on record—according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 4.3 million Americans did so in August.
Staffing shortages haven’t deterred Skipper, however. He says the most important thing a restaurant can do is to be nimble and pragmatic. He says it’s also necessary to keep in mind how hard those who are present are working.
“I think some people are extremely overworked and we’re trying to figure out how to reduce those hours for them,” he says. “We’re not afraid or shy about closing the restaurant for lunch if we have to so that we can give people time off. In august we closed the entire organization for a day to give everyone a break and just a mental health day, if you will. We’re not afraid to look at all options on the table.”
A new issue that may arise is related to vaccine mandates. An internal survey of staff revealed that almost 30 percent of workers would leave Mac’s if vaccines became mandatory.
Skipper says he thought after unemployment benefits rolled back staffing issues would ease. That hasn’t been the case. But he’s hopeful the upcoming holiday season will provide a boon in employment, although winter months tend to be the slowest for Mac’s.
“I have to imagine people are going to go back to work,” he says. “Maybe it will be Christmas that triggers it. If people are back working that would solve 80 percent of the issues currently. One thing we have going for us is we’re heading into a time where it’s a little bit slower so we’re going to have relief for our employees.”
Another problem Mac’s is facing is related to growth. With five units in the pipeline, the chain, naturally, needs kitchen equipment, and this, Skipper says, provided a new challenge.
He says the issue isn’t as much that certain pieces of equipment aren’t available for purchase, it has more to do with who has the ability to purchase them.
“There are much larger corporations out there buying 50 restaurants worth of equipment at a time,” he says. “That puts some extreme squeeze on the market for guys like us who are hoping to grow. We had a call with a partner last week and we were told if we want fryers and ovens, you’ve got to order now to get them in April.”
To combat these issues, Skipper says, Mac’s is looking at how to better streamline kitchens and dining rooms. He says one of the new locations is going to have no servers, just food runners and kitchen staff. He says they’ll also look at what equipment can be cut from the kitchen or replaced by something more readily available.
Despite setbacks, Mac’s is in a good place, Skipper says.
“If you adapt, you will survive,” he says. “Even with these challenges, we’re still finding ways to get guests in the door and serve them and make sure that they have a great experience.”
Skipper says “95 percent” of Mac’s customers have been understanding of the recent menu changes.
“Everyone please treat your servers and bartenders with kindness,” he says. “They’re working incredibly hard to ensure that you have a great experience.”