Chicken cutlets are in such demand by restaurants and take-out food providers, that desperate chefs have resorted to clearing out the entire stock of kosher supermarkets. And those markets are struggling to get the cutlets customers want. At all points on the chicken supply chain, from farm to table, demand is outpacing supply and prices are rising. Schnitzel, that beloved but commonplace staple of the kosher kitchen, may one day be a luxury item.
You may be noticing more and more chicken legs in display counters. On the wholesale front, the price of getting the coveted cutlets includes an agreement by customers to also purchase items less in demand, also pricier than last year. “I have to get many other products, like chicken legs and breasts and brisket, to get the cutlets I want,” said Jonny Shore, owner of Ma’adan on Cedar Lane in Teaneck. He still can’t get the quantity he needs. “I order 40 cases and I’m happy if I get seven or eight.”
Everyone in the kosher food business is concerned about short supplies and rising prices, especially as Pesach gets closer, a time of peak demand. Suppliers to retail food providers are increasing prices each month. Shore said his costs rose 7½ percent in February and 3 percent the previous month. On top of that, getting ready for Pesach is an expensive activity. “We turn the store over two weeks before Pesach, so money is going out and nothing is coming in,” said Shore. “Then there’s the expense to kasher the kitchen and cook from scratch with all new Pesadich ingredients.”
Food providers are doing their best to negotiate with vendors and find alternatives when possible to keep their price increases to customers as low as possible. Shore said Ma’adan is also making some menu pivots to work around the cutlet chaos. He’s making more meat than chicken dishes and more vegetarian items. The store is also expanding its selection of grocery items.
What’s behind the shortages? All industries are facing similar problems—not enough workers to produce the items and not enough drivers to transport them. “Small businesses are getting crunched by the rising cost of ingredients and limited availability,” said Shore.
Uri Herzog, owner of Chopstix, has been coping with shortages of chicken cutlets and other items since COVID began. “If there are six steps in the supply chain from origination to the customer’s table, at some point in the past two years, every one of those chains has broken down,” he said. “In the beginning they were broken at the same time. Many places closed. Now, if it’s not one part of the chain that’s broken, it’s another. It might be no drivers or low staff in the plants. But it even goes back further, to where the chickens are grown. There have been problems getting feed. It’s a national and global issue.”
The shortage of chicken cutlets, as well as other products, has affected the Chopstix menu. Herzog is mixing some dark meat into dishes such as General Tso’s chicken that were previously made only with white meat and can’t honor requests by customers for white meat only. He is also struggling to find pre-checked broccoli, a key ingredient in many of Chopstix’s dishes. On a positive note, after five months of not being able to get veal, their top-selling veal spare ribs are back on the menu.
Food businesses get their supply of chicken and meat from distributors. One salesman who spoke to us, but did not want to be identified by name, said there’s a pecking order to how the supplies are distributed. The distributor’s largest, most loyal customers get the lion’s share but still can’t get all they want, and must agree to purchase items they may not need. He’s not even taking new customers. There are seven chicken vendors and he deals with six of them. Whole chickens are easier to get and that helps the grocers; they can break down the chickens to get cutlets. Most restaurants, however, don’t have the time or trained staff with the needed skills.
Surprisingly, chicken is more in demand now than meat,” he said. “Everyone is clamoring for cutlets.”
By Bracha Schwartz