Opening Birrieria La Plaza on the Eastside of Portland this past December was the realization of a dream for Oracio Hernandez and his family. For years, they had talked of sharing the family’s birria de res — a Jaliscan stew of marinated beef, served with a hot bowl of savory, long-simmered broth whose recipe had been passed to Oracio from his mother, Dona Sofia, who learned it from her mother. This same dish, served at the truck, has been in the family for generations.
At the height of its success a couple months ago, Hernandez’s food cart was going through a thousand pounds of chuck roast a week to make this popular stew. On May 4, the prices offered by his meat supplier for chuck increased by 200 percent. Hernandez was forced to temporarily shut down to find another reliable source of affordable meat. “We’re on the Eastside and we’re just a food truck,” Hernandez says. “We don’t want to raise the prices too much.”
Birrieria La Plaza, like many Portland beef-dependent restaurants, is the collateral damage of a crumbling supply chain as the nation’s largest meat processing plants slow or halt production, making meat harder to come by. Below, we dig into how the meat shortage works, how it affects Oregon and Washington restaurants, and how local restaurants and meat purveyors are continuing to feed a hungry public during a challenging time.
Odd Shifts in Supply and Demand
When the novel coronavirus started to spread throughout the United States, outbreaks began to pop up in meat processing plants across the country. Over the course of a couple of months, thousands of meat processing workers were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, and at least 20 have died of the disease. Nearly two dozen meat processing plants have shuttered or reduced capacity. Pork production is most heavily impacted, with 25 percent less meat on the market in the first week of May; beef production was down 10 percent.
Regardless, demand has shifted: Groceries and butcher shops have bought up some of the grocery meat set aside for temporarily closed restaurants. As consumers eat at home more, they are stocking up on meat at grocery stores and buying up larger than normal quantities of a normally cheap meat: chuck. Chuck is typically sold at retail outlets as ground meat used for burgers, meatballs, meat sauces, and other dishes popular with home cooks. For the week of May 5, 2020, the USDA reported that the price of chuck had increased 145.4 percent. As retail customers buy up this popular supermarket meat, the amount available to the restaurant industry at a wholesale price has shrunk — and local restaurant owners have felt that loss of inventory.
Jayson Lusk, head of the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University, is not surprised by the current meat market disruptions. In a blog post on March 16, he predicted that the virus could spread through a plant, much like a Kansas fire did in August, causing shutdowns and problems getting animals processed in a timely manner. “Meat supply chains are optimized for efficiency and low-cost production, not necessarily for flexibility and resiliency,” he wrote. In other words, meat processing has been centralized into a system that has a small number of large processing facilities where farmers can bring animals to prepare them for the marketplace.
“The challenges we’re seeing at the moment are based on the hourglass shape of our meat supply,” explains Lusk in a phone interview. The 10 largest beef processing plants process 60 percent of meat consumed in the United States. When any of this limited number of plants shut down, farmers don’t have alternate processing facilities to take their cattle for processing, and the meat from these animals can’t be sold. However, not all members of the industry agree that meat will be significantly impacted by these plant shutdowns. Hundreds of millions of pounds of meat remain in cold storage, according to the USDA, and the shutdown of restaurants has opened up meat for consumers that way. That being said, restaurant owners and food-cart proprietors across the greater Portland area are still struggling to find affordable meat during a time that’s already challenging for business owners.
Does Buying Locally Raised Meat Matter?
Oregon and Washington, of course, do not exist in a bubble of local-only meat processing, exempt from the impacts of the coronavirus. Pacific Northwest meat processing facilities are facing the same problems as other facilities throughout the country — shutdowns and slowdowns as a result of workers testing positive for COVID-19. For beef to be served in a restaurant, it must be processed in a USDA-inspected facility. Oregon has 13 of these facilities and Washington has 12. Two out of the 12 of these Washington plants have already faced COVID-19-related shutdowns.
Geoff Latham, of Nicky USA, has provided locally raised meat to restaurants, stores, and consumers for almost 30 years. From what he’s seen so far, prices for meat on the local small-farm level haven’t been as volatile as those on the national level, particularly compared to meat produced in the Midwest, where major packing plants churn out cheap products. Smaller operators take longer to react to price swings, Latham explains.
Latham noted that flexibility might be the name of the game for the next few weeks: Customers looking for currently highly coveted meat like pork butt and chuck may have more trouble. For instance, Theotis Cason — the owner of Cason’s Fine Meats — wasn’t able to get the Carlton Farms pork that he ordered for Mother’s Day, but he did get 200 pounds of locally sourced brisket. At Bullard, a Texas-themed restaurant known for massive meat ribs, owners Jen Quist and Doug Adams are adapting their takeout menu based on what they’re able to source that they feel will be attractive to customers. “There’s a lot of fatty pork that smokes well,” explains Adams.
But it’s tough for smaller businesses that rely on affordably priced cuts to make pivots. Barbecue, birria, and burgers all generally rely on one or two cuts of any given animal, and swapping in another cut, let alone another animal, is difficult to do.
What It Means for Barbecue
Barbecue, clearly a meat-reliant business, has had its own trouble obtaining certain cuts of meat; places like Podnah’s Pit have done away with lunch service because of “meat shortages and a surge in pricing.” Podnah’s owner, Rodney Muirhead, explains that the price of brisket has doubled, and the restaurant could only source half the amount it normally uses.
Donnie Vercher, the owner of Daddy D’s Southern Barbecue, was seeing great business at his Woodland location until the meat shortage hit. “We sold out every single night,” Vercher says. “I couldn’t find meat anywhere. I’ve been sourcing meat for 14 years. I’ve chased all the stores down from Portland, Longview, Cash n Carry. There’s a rush to get whatever you can there.” Vercher closed his Vancouver location for a month, and reluctantly shut down his Woodland shop for nine days. Today, however, he nabbed some brisket and ribs and reopened both stores for lunch at 11 a.m. “I hope it lasts us,” he says.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however: Smoked brisket is the centerpiece of Texas barbecue, a favorite among diners in the greater Portland area, and while this cut of meat seems to be facing some challenges, owners of local barbecue spots feel that they will be able to continue to source big slabs of this barbecue-friendly meat for the brisket-hungry Portlanders.
The Smokin’ Oak in downtown Vancouver typically sources its meat from a butcher in Spokane, but due to shortages, it’s scrambled to find other sources that offer a high-quality product at a workable price. Owner Erick Gill says his kitchen manager is on the phone with suppliers every day, because the meat the suppliers offer sells out so fast. “The concern for all of us smaller guys,” he says, “is that the bigger guys will buy it all up. We can’t compete with the massive buying power of Costco and Sysco.” Fortunately, for now they’ve been able to affordably source the restaurant’s signature beef brisket.
Kyle Rensmeyer, of Holy Trinity Barbecue, has noticed fluctuations in the meat market, but has been able to consistently source meat. “So far, it hasn’t been the worst,” he says. Holy Trinity Barbecue uses cuts of meat with whole muscles, like pork shoulder and brisket, that don’t need to be divided into smaller cuts. These large cuts require long cooking times and aren’t as familiar to home cooks as easy-to-cook products like ground chuck.
Okay, So Who Needs Chuck?
While businesses with brisket-heavy menus are seeing some fluctuation in price, places that rely on chuck are seeing bizarre market reversals. “Chuck is more expensive than rib-eye or brisket. That’s crazy, isn’t it?” says Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin. Due to this strange price inversion, Hwang switched from chuck to rib-eye — an odd change, considering chuck is typically used for burgers and rib-eye for expensive steaks served in upscale steakhouses. Hwang usually goes through 100 to 120 pounds of meat in a week. He recently bought 80 pounds of rib-eye, and that’s all he has for now. “You might want to come back in a couple weeks and see where I am,” he says. “I might be meatbroke.”
Both Little Big Burger and Super Deluxe source fresh, local beef from SP Provisions in Portland. “They’ve been doing their best to keep us supplied, but it’s been challenging. Beef prices are soaring and supply is week-by-week,” Adrian Oca, of Little Big Burger, says. The local chain closed four of its locations, and its volume is down significantly. So far it hasn’t seen disruptions in beef supply, but Oca has noticed an increase in the price of chuck for the past two weeks in a row. Oca worries that prices for chuck may double in the coming weeks.
What It Means for Birria
For some, the solution to the meat sourcing issue can’t be resolved by raising prices or offering a smaller portion. Birria is still on the menu at Papi Chulo’s in the Pearl District, where Ramzy Hattar uses a combination of chuck roll and sirloin for the savory Mexican stew at his restaurant. “Sourcing beef has been so frustrating and challenging,” Hattar says. “Outside of higher costs, we have had a difficult time even finding quality beef.” Hattar typically sources meat from SP Provisions, but he’s had to go elsewhere to keep his business going.
Hernandez continues to hold out hope of reopening. He’s received some help sourcing meat from fellow food truck owner Han Ly Hwang. “Our family, we have a lot riding on this,” Hernandez says. “We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant for years, and we need to stay with this.”