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Off The Menu: Higher menu prices in the offing

When the day arrives for restaurant operations to return to “normal,” — whatever that will look like — one thing is almost certain. Those dining out will find themselves facing higher menu prices.

The many food production and distribution bottlenecks the pandemic has created have already driven up wholesale and retail food prices, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting that food prices increase 3.5% last, almost double the 20-year average rate.

Minimum wage legislation working its way through the U.S. Congress will likely have a substantial impact on restaurant labor costs, especially for those operations that rely on “tip credit” provisions to set wage rates for tipped employees.

Now another cost increase is on the horizon as credit card companies and processors are preparing to increase “swipe costs,” the charges they levy on restaurants and retailers when customers pay with debit or credit cards.

More formally known as interchange fees, these fees are set by the major credit card networks and typically run about 2% of the total purchase charged.

Though neither Visa nor MasterCard have provided many specifics about the changes in their fees they plan to make, restaurants and retailers will have to recover the cost of the increases that do occur. To do so those merchants will inevitably need to increase the prices we all pay, whether we use plastic or cash when doing so.

Leone’s Restaurant in Springfield is now offering a cauliflower crust pizza special. It’s made with a gluten-free, low carb cauliflower crust and is topped with mozzarella and grilled chicken, then garnished with arugula, red onion, sliced cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and a drizzle of olive oil.

The cauliflower crust pizza is available for dine in, pickup, or local delivery. Contact Leone’s at (413) 783-4363 for more details.

Paul & Elizabeth’s Restaurant in Northampton has teamed up with Berkshore, a Northampton-based seafood wholesaler, to make available a menu of Lenten seafood meals.

Berkshore is supplying the kitchen at Paul & Elizabeth’s with Faroe Island salmon, sea scallops, cod, flounder, swordfish and more. For its part, that kitchen transforms what Berkshore supplies with skilled preparation techniques and a host of flavorings.

The restaurant has a dedicated menu for curbside pickup and delivery at their web site, paulandelizabeths.com. The restaurant answers at (413) 584-4832.

Taco Bell is about to make an exploratory foray into the “chicken sandwich wars” as it tests a Fried Chicken Sandwich Taco in selected markets.

The sandwich item as currently constituted features chicken strips marinated in jalapeno buttermilk, seasoned with a special spice blend, and coated with tortilla chips crumbs. The “bun” is a puffy bread shaped like a taco shell; a creamy chipotle sauce finishes the item.

A spicy version of the Fried Chicken Sandwich Taco comes garnished with slices of jalapeno.

No timetable for a chain-wide rollout of the Fried Chicken Sandwich Taco has been announced.

Hanna Devine’s Restaurant in Ware has brought back a popular menu of “Fried Fish Favorites,” making them available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during Lent.

Selections include whole belly clams, fried scallops, and fried shrimp. A “SCAM” plate brings together clam strips and dry-pack scallops along with the customary sides of French fries and coleslaw.

A fish & chips option is available, and Hanna’s Fishermen’s Platter delivers a bit of every sort of seafood in stock.

Hanna Devine’s is open Wednesday through Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and also serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. on. The telephone number is (413) 277-0707.

Another of the region’s independently owned restaurants has elected to take the winter off.

The Lone Wolf in Amherst, a popular breakfast-and-lunch operation run by Chef Rob Watson, plans to reopen on or about April 1, when the weather is likely to be more outdoor-dining friendly.

The restaurant’s web address is lonewolfamherst.com.

For those households where beef is king, Sturbridge Porterhouse in Sturbridge has created a menu of curbside carryout that is sure to satisfy.

Its takeout-only “Family Meals” include options such as steak tips prepared in three different formats as well as a Family Prime Rib package and a Bone Marrow Porterhouse for two.

Supplementing those beefy inspirations are two additional options – chicken bacon mac & cheese and rigatoni with vodka sauce.

Family meals at Sturbridge Porterhouse include either a salad or a quart of soup. For starters the menu suggests extra-cost orders of classic shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fried Brussels sprouts, or crab cakes.

The Family Meal menu is available Monday through Thursday evenings from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. More details can be had by going to sturbridge-porterhouse.com or by dialing (508) 347-2700.

An Israeli biotech company, Aleph Farms, has produced the first bio-printed beef rib eye.

To make the steak the firm grows bovine muscle cells in a lab setting, then uses “3-D printing” technology to assemble those cells into the shape and structure of beef rib muscle.

The company’s founder, Didier Toubia, says the process can be tweaked to vary the product’s cooking and eating characteristics. Aleph Farms hopes to have FDA approval to sell the product in the U.S. sometime next year.

Several chains with local outlets have announced limited-time rollouts of seafood items for Lent. One of those brands is Boston Market, which is adding a Baked Cod Individual Meal and a Cod Sandwich to its menu every Friday through April 2.

Participating Arby’s locations are offering a Crispy Fish Sandwich through March 29. The sandwich is available in two forms – one garnished with shredded lettuce and served on a toasted sesame seed bun and a second, the King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe, which is additionally garnished with sliced tomato and cheddar cheese and served on a King’s Hawaiian bun.

Some good news on the pandemic front is always welcome, and a statement posted last week on the Food and Drug Administration’s website offers restaurant operators and customers alike assurance that COVID-19 does not appear to be transmitted through food or food packaging.

As reported in various food service industry media outlets, the Food and Drug Administration, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has based this conclusion on a review of the best available scientific data worldwide. Their analysis does not reveal any credible epidemiological evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food handling or packaging.

The conclusion that the FDA has reached is that the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from consuming food or handling food packaging is “extremely low.”

Known for the way they leap from the water when startled, the invasive Asian carp species that plague the Mississippi River basin may soon end up on restaurant and fast food menus.

Originally introduced to control algae blooms in catfish farms, the carp escaped into the wild and have come to dominate many river ecosystems in the Midwest.

Concerns about Asian carp moving into the Great Lakes, where they could do massive damage to commercial fisheries, is leading the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to turn to a new control strategy – promoting Asian carp as a trendy new menu item.

Already used as bait, fertilizer, and a component in dog food, the fish is about to be rebranded for human consumption. A marketing campaign with the tagline “The Perfect Catch” will promote Asian carp as a healthy and sustainable protein source. This July, at the Boston Seafood Show, the fish will be introduced to wholesalers and retailers with an entirely new name and identity.

Reputedly tasty and rich with omega-3 fatty acids, the carp has one significant problem that may limit its attractiveness to restaurant chefs — it’s difficult to properly de-bone.

Hugh Robert is a faculty member in Holyoke Community College’s hospitality and culinary arts program and has nearly 45 years of restaurant and educational experience. Robert can be reached on-line at [email protected].

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