DECATUR — A fryer is one of the essential appliances in most restaurants.
However, many owners are finding it more and more of a worry to use the important piece of equipment.
Along with a shortage of employees and supplies, the price of cooking oil has shot up, causing many restaurant owners to study their options.
Although his overall operating costs may be lower, Clint Brumleve, co-owner of the Tornado Food Truck parked on Illinois 48 in Decatur, faces the same struggles as the brick-and-mortar restaurants. The prices of cooking oil have more than doubled since the beginning of the food truck season. “They are saying that it’s not supposed to go back down for at least a little while,” Brumleve said. “And no one knows what a little while means.”
Dave Jordan, owner of The Wagon on North Woodford Street in Decatur, and his staff serve many popular items straight from the fryer, including mozzarella cheese sticks, beer battered onion rings, cod fish, shrimp and, their very popular fried chicken.
“A couple of months ago, when the price was still OK, I was paying about 26 bucks a box,” Jordan said. “Then it went $30, then $32, then $34, and now it’s $41.”
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A box of oil used to cook The Wagon’s food is about five gallons. “I buy about 18 a week,” Jordan said.
According to the global news agency Reuters, the most used edible oil throughout the world is palm oil. A labor shortage in Malaysia has been to blame for a portion of the problems. The Southeastern Asian country, along with Indonesia, make up for 84% of global production of palm oil.
A December 2020 news release on the topic from ReasearchAndMarkets.com also noted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the current novel coronavirus infection outbreak, the edible oil refineries have experienced a downfall in their operating capacity to around 50%. This is mainly attributed to the deficiency of raw materials along with delays in the import clearance. The decrease in the operating capacity is also related to the lockdown measures that resulted in the delayed harvesting of certain oilseeds, for instance, mustard seeds in India.”
Jordan refuses to follow the market’s lead and hasn’t changed prices or portions, although the price of cooking oil continues to go up.
“I haven’t done anything,” he said. “I just absorb it.”
Renad Qattoum and her family serve fish and other fried items at their restaurant Big Sharks Fish and Chicken on East Prairie Avenue in Decatur. The restaurant opened in November 2019, months before the pandemic limited the operation of most businesses. Qattoum said her family was ready.
“Ever since COVID, they were talking about the high prices,” she said.
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Sharks’ menu prices have changed several times since the restaurant opened. “About a month ago, we had to do about three changes on our menu,” Qattoum said.
Along with the fish and chicken, popular fried items include mushrooms, okra, hush puppies and French fries.
Unlike other restaurants, Sharks business has grown, according to Qattoum. “We are used to people calling in their order, coming in real quick,” she said. “People love fish and chicken.”
Whether they are busy or not, many restaurants face challenges when ordering supplies and food. “So we always over-order when it’s available,” Qattoum said.
Restaurant owners and managers work with various supply companies, even for the oil, to outsource the best products and prices. Their suppliers often suggest the businesses raise the prices on their products to offset the increasing supply costs.
Brumleve doesn’t feel comfortable with this suggestion.
“You are constantly competing to have the lowest food prices and the best quality food,” he said. “At some point, you have to make a choice, do I raise my prices or do I change my quality.”
Restaurant managers and staff struggle with this decision.
“But in every case, we just eat it (the cost),” Brumleve said. “Because the most important thing for us is our customers being happy.”
Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR