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Iowa restaurants struggle to keep menu items in stock amid inflation

The Iowa Restaurant Association says it's now more important than ever to eat local—and have patience with employees.

DES MOINES, Iowa — With consumer prices surging 7% in the past year, inflation is hitting all corners of the economy—including Iowa's restaurants.

Iowa Restaurant Association CEO Jessica Bunker credits inflation as the reason some items missing from the menu next time you go out to eat. She said restaurants are specifically having a hard time getting protein.

"When there's nobody in a processing plant to process the chicken, and no one to drive the truck and no one to unload the truck, then all of a sudden, you have a 30% increase in the price of chicken," Bunker said. "So that makes it incredibly difficult when you are trying to operate a business that's in razor thin margins."

Sierrah Kittrell owns the Wingz on Wheelz food truck, and said she's feeling the effects of the pandemic mixed with higher prices.

"Our business has been struggling, to be transparent, just due to the inflation of food cost, supplies and products," Kittrell said.

The prices of her business essentials skyrocketed throughout the pandemic while she kept her prices steady. Kittrell said this left her profit margin in bad shape. 

"A case of chicken has doubled in price, napkins have almost tripled in price, to-go containers have almost tripled in price," she said. "As far as the traffic of our business, we've still received the normal amount of traffic if not more than we received prior to the pandemic. But with the inflation of food costs, it has been very difficult to see a margin of profit."

Bunker said Kittrell's business isn't the only one experiencing this.

"In good times, the restaurant industry operates on about a 5% net profit," she said. "So when you're looking at 30% increases on pieces of your business that are really important, it's difficult."

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Meat and poultry aren't the only key items that are forcing restaurants to change their menus.

"Cooking oil has gone up significantly in price. And when you think of the large fryers that a lot of foodservice operations use, and how often you change the oil, having a doubling in the price of cooking oil is significant and really impacts operations," she said.

As for Kittrell, her plan to get through this is to continue to "wing it."

"I have just been very blessed for all of our regular customers, as well as our new customers that have been willing to support our business can't give us a try," Kittrell said. "Because honestly, if it was not for our customers, we would have been out of business a long time ago."

The unpredictability of getting ingredients or supplies means Q-R code menus are likely here to stay. That allows restaurant owners to easily update what they do and don't have in stock

The Iowa Restaurant Association says now more than ever, it's important to eat local. They're also reminding the public to have patience with restaurant employees during these difficult times.

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