'It's a different kind of stress': Inflation forces restaurants to make menu changes and find ways to save

pic of fish fry.jpg
Posted at 5:24 AM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 07:32:55-05

Inflation is the latest dish the pandemic has served up cold, and it's been extra painful for the restaurant industry.

"It's a different kind of stress. I don't know if it's better or worse," said Danielle Baerwald, owner of Erv's Mug in Oak Creek.

Prices are up for nearly everything she needs to buy to keep her family-owned business running.

"It's not just the lettuce; it's the sour cream, the oil that we fry the Friday fish fry," she said. "I would say we're not breaking even. We're definitely not making a profit."

Baerwald isn't buying food for a family of four. She's purchasing products to feed hundreds if not thousands of customers, and it's all costing more to put on a plate.

Take a fish fry meal, for example. Not factoring in labor or expenses before the pandemic, Baerwald says it cost her $3 to pay for the meal. Now it costs her $7.50.

"The grease has gone up, the flour has gone up, the beer has gone up. I haven't even started on the actual fish or the french fries or the cup to hold the coleslaw," she said.

She adds the price increase for plastics is making take-out meals more expensive too. Tiny containers for the sides used to cost her $.03. Now, they're $.25 each. A plastic fork pre-pandemic was a nickel. Now it's $.15. It all adds up.

Baerwald says she's absorbed a lot of the price jumps, but has had to slightly increase prices.

"We raised our prices at the end of September and I'm evaluating whether certain things have to go up again," Baerwald said.

She's also had to take some popular meals off the menu, like a steak dinner, because the price of the tenderloin cut she used tripled.

"We're also seeing inflation and price hikes in wages. It's another pressure on restaurants to attract and retain quality staff, those prices are raised as well," said Kristine Hillmer, President & CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Hillmer says some restaurants are still struggling to be fully staffed.

"If you see an open table and they are not seating at it, it may be because they don't have the staff in the front to either provide service, or they may not have the staff in the back to be able to make the food in order for you to be sitting there," Hillmer said.

"We have unfortunately heard many front line workers who are reduced to tears because of the pressure of being yelled at, of being physically assaulted, of being spat at, and it really is just unacceptable to have somebody come into your restaurant and do that," she continued.

"They question why your price went up, they question why they can't get extra without having to pay for it," said Baerwald, who adds the majority of Erv's Mug customers have been patient and kind.

Her staff of 24 has been doing what they can to keep costs down.

"They usually get a meal during their shift, and if they want to take it home with them or eat it out of a box for whatever reason, we've asked them to bring their own Tupperware in," Baerwald said.

Little things go a long way. She thanks the diners who show up and support her family-owned business and so many others.

"It's so important to continue to support the things in your community that you want to see remain in your community."

"These operators for the past 21 months have been through the ringer, and it hasn’t stopped and it’s taking a toll on them physically, emotionally, and mentally. And when they have customers coming in expecting it to be pre-pandemic, the expectation is not quite going to match the reality that they are facing," said Hillmer.

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