By David Chacon

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, my wife flew to New Mexico for a friend’s 40th birthday. Before she laid her head to rest that evening, the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported in Arkansas and the NBA season was suspended. Since then, restaurants and bars have closed or reinvented their services, schools are virtual for the remainder of the year, and those with jobs are doing their best to work from home while teaching their children.

As our economy reels from a global pandemic, local establishments are struggling to maintain the status quo, distribution channels are being disrupted, and the industry is looking for answers. To sustain a baseline of sanity, my family has chosen to take advantage of some local curbside services.

In the past month we have done curbside pickups from Lost 40 Brewing, El Palenque, Colonial Wines & Spirits, Hubcap Burger Company, Star of India, Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co., and Count Porkula. I am happy to report that each experience was efficient and delicious. Kudos to Star of India as they included a roll of white gold with my order.

Three Fold has adapted by offering curbside pick-up. In an effort to keep all of their employees employed and create new revenue streams, chef/owner Lisa Zhang will be launching “a satellite location in the form of a concession trailer.” Zhang has applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and hopes the new venture and financial assistance will carry her through the storm.

I reached out to The Pizzeria about how they were adapting to the current situation. General Manager Dillon Garcia said they have gone to curbside pickup and local delivery. In addition, there have been “changes to how and when we package some items so the product travels better and has a better presentation.” Safe food handling has always been a high priority but is now a meticulous practice. Garcia hopes that, once this is over, there is a socially renewed focus on hand washing.

When asked how the community has responded, Garcia replied “overwhelmingly.”

“We couldn’t be more thankful for the continued support we are receiving, not only from our long-time regulars, but from those that have tried us for the first time during all this and have become regulars as well.”

Local businesses have also joined forces. Garcia mentions the loaning of supplies and services. Specifically, photographer Dero Sanford has provided “professional eye-catching photos” that are used on social media. It sounds as though all The Pizzeria team has come together and will make it through the pandemic. The PPP has been applied for and Dillon is looking forward to opening the doors again. “We truly miss the energy and atmosphere that comes with dining room service”.

Changing Our Ways

COVID-19 has changed our purchasing habits and resulted in a false sense of food scarcity. Panic buying and hoarding, in conjunction with supply line logistical challenges, have emerged as the leading causes of the perceived shortage. Solutions vary as governments, brokers, and food pantries adjust their operations to suit the current industry climate.

Several countries have begun to ban or reduce exports. For example, Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat flour, has banned its exportation. It has also reduced the exportation of onions, carrots, and potatoes. Vietnam has temporarily ceased the exportation of rice, and Russia has threatened to restrict some commodity trade. In the short-term we may experience some supply side disruption and, in the long-term labor issues may result in some shortages and price increases. The good news is analysts say most widely consumed foods are in adequate supply. UN Food and Agriculture Organization chief economist Maximo Torero sees the need for government intervention. “We need to have policies in place so the labor force can keep doing their job”, Torero states. He also stresses the need to protect the employees themselves.

The recent closure of consulates in Mexico has put a stop to new H-2A visa applications. The H-2A visa program allows American farmers to augment their labor needs with migrant laborers. Currently, only those who are renewing their visa are eligible to move forward in the application process. Under the current mandates, no new visas are being issued. Typically, renewals only account for 50% of annual applicants. Without a change in policy, we could see a labor shortage that would result in crops being left to rot in the field. We are already seeing crops being dumped because of supply chain challenges. Another possibility is that recently unemployed Americans step in to fill the void. Rodney McMullen, CEO of Kroger, states that “there’s plenty of food in the supply chain”. In addition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assures that the administration will “do everything we can to keep that part of our economy lifeblood working”.

The Producers and Distributors

Our country’s food system is built on predictability. With the closure of restaurants and cafeterias, producers and distributors are scrambling to move their product. Florida tomato growers sell 80% of their crop to restaurants as opposed to supermarkets. Restaurant closures has resulted in tomatoes being left in the fields and growers writing off huge losses. While milk sales in supermarkets have increased, there has been a large drop in demand for milk in school cafeterias and cheese for pizza chains. As a result, we have seen dairy producers dump thousands of gallons of milk. Food brokers are now power players in overcoming this issue. Matching buyers and sellers, broker Jay Johnson of JGL Produce, says that he is having success steering product toward food banks.

Katy Elliott, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Arkansas Local Food Network (ALFN), is part of a team doing their part to contribute to farm viability at the local level. The ALFN is a 501c3 non-profit organization that connects people to Arkansas farms and businesses to help grow the local economy. They even have an online farmers market. In addition to the market, they procure staples for Green Groceries who provide fresh, local food for those with food insecurity. Elliott states that interest has increased recently.

Adrienne Shaunfield, owner of The Farmer’s Table Café in Fayetteville, made the tough decision to close her restaurant on March 16th. Adrienne’s first thoughts centered around protecting her staff and the community. Her next issue was managing the perishable foods she had on hand and assuring her employees were taken care of. Perishable food was distributed among employees and donated locally. The next task was assisting staff in navigating the unemployment process.

Working with approximately 30 producers, Shaunfield stated that “our main goal as a farm to table restaurant was to ensure that our farmers kept planting more food”. To assist in this effort, Adrienne created an on-line store to connect producers with buyers. She noted that the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market has done the same and both are seeing success.

“We can’t wait to get back to normal and hope that it happens sooner than later,” says Adrienne. Allowing employees to come in one at a time and do “chores” has kept the team occupied and safe. The Farmer’s Table has successfully applied for the PPP and received funds. Adrienne says a separate account has been set up in order to track everything closely. The swift actions taken by Shaunfield resulted in her employees only missing one paycheck. As small business owners search for assistance, there are several resources they should tap in to.

Relief for the Industry

The $2.2 Trillion Corona Virus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is offering relief to the industry. $350 Billion of the funds have been set aside for the PPP. The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) believes the PPP is more beneficial to larger corporate restaurants and does not assist smaller, privately owned entities as it is currently written. The IRC is lobbying for additional funds and revision of the language within the CARES Act to make assistance more available to independent restaurants. As stakeholders within the local food industry seek relief, the Arkansas Hospitality Association (AHA) is a solid resource.

Susie Cowan, Director of Membership Development and Communications for the AHA, is currently experiencing high volumes of inquiries. The most common question she is fielding relates to “clarification of the legislation for the tax relief for the COVID-19 crisis.” Cowan advises small business owners to get tapped into existing resources. She states the best place to start is the Arkansas Small Business Technology Development Center Cowan goes on to say the Arkansas Economic Development Commission has a “fantastic resource page for both businesses and employees” Susie encourages those affected to “lean into your resources right now.” Additional resources include Chambers of Commerce, Main Street Associations, and your trade associations. “All of these organizations are working very hard to define the relief offers and find the answers to any questions.”

In December of 2019, food blogger Nathan Aguilera of Foodie Flashpacker crowned Little Rock as “America’s Next Hottest Foodie Destination 2020.” I have often proclaimed Little Rock as one of the best food scenes per capita in the nation. As a food enthusiast, I urge you to support our local businesses in order to protect the future and maintain our momentum.

More than ever, local businesses need to take advantage of available assistance, adapt strategically, and network. As we move forward through the shifting landscape that is our “new normal,” know that food is in good supply. Don’t panic, buy local, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. Little Rock has an excellent food culture and we will overcome this together.

*photo credits to The Pizzeria and David Chacon