Saturday, May 18, 2013
It will be some months before the drought and heat battering the Midwest show up in the form of higher food prices, but Kevin Cunningham, executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station, says he's already thinking about how dramatic increases in the cost of meat, corn and dairy might affect his fall menu.
Kevin Cunningham, executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station, prepares a dish in the kitchen at the inn in Brunswick on Friday.
Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
Kevin Cunningham, executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station, cuts vegetables in the inn's kitchen Friday.
He said he plans to begin meeting with his staff next week to think about ways he can compensate besides raising prices across the board.
"Because we're a new property and we are just starting to establish a fairly decent following, raising prices becomes very problematic," Cunningham said. "On our end, to raise prices it either has to happen in high season now, or you have to start looking at different products to run on your menu for the fall, when the prices are really going to hit."
That means finding more creative things to do with cheaper ingredients like pork belly, chicken breasts and pasta.
Even at a destination restaurant like the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, where customers come to dine as much for the view as the food, the business will have to get creative or "eat" the increased costs, said manager Philip Kronenthal.
"You'd be hard-pressed to take steak off the menu," Kronenthal said. "Some of it we just have to absorb, and tighten our belts in other areas to make up for it."
Restaurant owners are "loath to raise prices," said Dick Grotton, head of the Maine Restaurant Association. "It's the last thing they want to do," he said, but many may have no choice come this fall.
Grotton said restaurant owners are eyeing reports of a wilting corn crop, which could have a broad impact on food prices, given the extent of corn's reach into the nation's food chain and the fact that it is used as feed for animals.
"So much of what we purchase is based on corn and wheat -- it's in everything," Grotton said, explaining why consumers are likely to feel the pinch of higher prices even if they're not ordering a steamed ear of corn with their meal.
And the effects of the drought covering two-thirds of the continental United States are not likely to be over quickly. A new report released Thursday warned that its intensity is increasing.
The heat and drought in the Midwest led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut its forecast for the corn crop earlier this month, saying it expected an acre of corn to yield 146 bushels, down from a forecast of 166 bushels earlier this year. That forecast is pushing corn prices higher, although the corn in the food stream now is from last year's crop, with this year's harvest still several weeks off.
Still, the drought is already having some ripple effects. Kronenthal said the drought affected the produce coming into the kitchen at the Black Point Inn "nearly immediately."
"You started to see an increase in price, and then there were some quality issues that arose," he said.
Cunningham said that the lack of lamb on some restaurant menus right now is related to a major drought in New Zealand in 2009. It took the country three years to recover from the drought, he said, and there was major flooding the following year that washed away topsoil, making things worse.
"Lamb prices worldwide went through the roof," Cunningham said. "You can go to your major cities and find lamb on one in three nice restaurants, and the pricing is bad."
Texas, the leading lamb-producing state, was already experiencing drought in January this year, Cunningham noted. While U.S. markets for beef, chicken and pork may turn out to be more resilient, an increase in lamb pricing can be a good indicator of what is coming down the road.
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