As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt just about every part of the supply chain, the owners of some pizza restaurants in Maine are hoping that when customers get a pie to go and it’s not in its usual box, they’ll remember that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In a post on Facebook Thursday, Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland called out paper goods supplier International Paper Co., based in Tennessee, for increasing its minimum order requirements for custom-printed pizza boxes “suddenly and with no advance notice.”

Monte’s might, on average, order about about 5,000 of the boxes at a time, owner Steve Quattrucci said. Under the new requirements, he said, that order would need to be more than tripled to 17,500 – “way more than we or our distributor can handle at one time.” 

Unable to meet the new minimum, Monte’s signature white pizza boxes with the company logo emblazoned on top are temporarily unavailable. 

International Paper responded via email to the Portland Press Herald with a statement about the supply chain issues leading to its decision.

“We’re experiencing congestion and cost pressure across all modes of transportation, as well as rising fuel, energy and fiber costs,” the company said. “Labor shortages are also impacting the supply chain across all industries. Given the challenges facing our broader U.S. supply chain in recent months, we are hopeful that efforts to eliminate bottlenecks and expedite the movement of goods will be successful and can benefit the entire supply chain.”

Quattrucci said his company is working to find another supplier, but in the meantime is using generic, brown pizza boxes. 

Overall, it’s a small concession, but Quattrucci said the company has put a lot of time and effort into its branding and packaging, and that regular customers would notice the sudden change. 

 “We have a premium product, we take a lot of pride in the pizza we make, and we want folks to know where it came from,” he said. “It’s the same special pizza they’ve come to expect despite the generic packaging.”

Leo Micucci, owner of Micucci’s Wholesale Foods in Portland, is the distributor for Monte’s and more than 50 other businesses that buy printed boxes, almost all of which will now have to make do without. He doesn’t have the warehouse space, he said, to order triple the usual number of boxes for each business, and even if he did, it would take years for the pizza shops to go through them all.

Even for the boxes he can get, the wait times are significantly higher. What used to take two to three weeks now takes two to three months, no matter which company Micucci goes through, he said. 

“I’m doing everything I can to get as many pizza boxes in here as I can,” Micucci said. “It’s absolutely crazy.” 

Sherri Cunningham, a manager at Pat’s Pizza in Orono, said the longtime pizza shop also has had problems getting boxes with the Pat’s logo, but they’ve managed to hold onto them by switching suppliers.

Other paper products also have been hard to obtain.

According to Micucci, the clamshell-style cardboard boxes for to-go orders and leftovers are scarce, and Quattrucci said the company has been unable to procure a special corrugated insert to keep the pizza from touching the bottom of the box. It has found a substitute, he said, but it’s more expensive. 

According to Business Insider, International Paper told investors in July that the supply of cardboard boxes was “severely low” and warned there would likely be continued supply chain bottlenecks for the rest of the year.

But the supply chain issues extend far beyond just paper products.

“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen anything close to what’s going on right now,” Micucci said. 

Onion rings, chicken fingers, pizza sauce, fry oil, mushrooms – all are either nearly impossible to get or the prices are sky-high, sometimes triple what they were pre-pandemic, he said. 

Quattrucci agreed. For any given order, about half the products usually come in and the other half are out of stock, he said. 

“We just have to keep ordering more, (to) try to keep the shelves filled,” he said.

The prices on invoices also keep going up, Quattrucci said. The company is trying to avoid hiking food prices too much to compensate for the added costs, but menu prices have been increased somewhat.

Cunningham, the Pat’s Pizza manager, said supply chain issues have caused the chain to temporarily take some items off the menu. 

For the deliveries that do come in, they’re often arriving at erratic times, such as 8:30 p.m. instead of the usual 9 a.m., or on a Saturday instead of during the week, she said.

That, compounded by the ongoing labor crisis that has made it difficult to find all the workers they need, has created new challenges.

The shop, a staple in Orono since Cunningham’s grandfather Pat opened it 90 years ago, is now doing takeout only during the day and opening for in-house dining from 4-9 p.m.

The restaurant is still doing OK, as are the other locations scattered throughout the state, but they’re definitely all feeling the supply chain crunch, Cunningham said. 

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