Saigon Hustle, a Vietnamese drive-thru restaurant in Houston, has been having trouble making spring rolls and vermicelli bowls, two big pillars of its menu, basically since it opened in February. “We’re experiencing a rice paper and rice vermicelli shortage right now,” says co-founder Cassie Ghaffar, who adds that this has been the case for over two months. And it’s not just rice paper and vermicelli noodles: “We experience this on a lot of food line items,” Ghaffar says. Just days before, their vendor had run out of condensed milk, which is used in both versions of the restaurant’s ca phe sua da.
Rice paper may be one shortage among many at the moment, but it’s an example of the constant curveballs being thrown at small business owners, who are still facing a convergence of COVID-related financial, labor, and ingredient issues. For some restaurant owners across the country, the stocking up of the early pandemic hasn’t ended — it’s extended to a changing list of items, with imported ingredients posing a particular challenge. According to Ghaffar, several restaurant owner friends are creating a surplus of essential items in garages and warehouses, stockpiling when they can find something they need. And when distributors don’t have their needed ingredients in supply — sometimes, the available options might not match the restaurant’s needs — staff has to take over the search, which uses more time and more resources.
Perry Cheung, owner of Phorage in Los Angeles, is also having a hard time getting rice paper wholesale. (That’s in addition to recent problems finding vegetarian stir-fry sauce and gluten-free soy sauce.) Whereas pre-pandemic, it was easy to rely on his preferred brand, Three Ladies, it’s been unavailable through his wholesaler due to a container issue. For the past two to three months, Cheung has been driving into the San Gabriel Valley every week to shop for rice paper. It appears that the retail supply chain hasn’t been hit in the same way as wholesale, he says. (Still, Three Ladies rice paper is out of stock through both Walmart and World Market as of this writing.)
Buying ingredients this way isn’t ideal. Since Saigon Hustle’s opening, Ghaffar and business partner Sandy Nguyen saw the need for a porter, a person whose full-time job is to make supply runs from their warehouse to the restaurant; the space is small, so packaging and dry goods need to be replenished from a separate storage area that’s shared with their other restaurants. But that porter is now also tasked “to stop at every grocery on the way [between drop-offs and pick-ups] and pick up rice vermicelli and rice paper at each one,” Ghaffar says. That’s necessitated, in part, by grocery stores placing purchasing limits on items in short supply — a store might specify that you can buy only five bags of noodles at a time, but the restaurant goes through six to seven bags a day, she says.
For Cheung, buying retail instead of wholesale means an increase in cost by 40 to 50 percent. Since it’s him doing this shopping, there are also “opportunity costs, where I need to take time out of my day to go Easter egg hunt this stuff and then shuttle it back, all within LA traffic,” Cheung says. He considers this work non-negotiable though. “For a Vietnamese restaurant, you can’t not have a spring roll, so you have to — by all means — find the product,” he says.
Similarly, the New York City restaurant Bolero got a heads up about a rice paper shortage from their Asian dry goods distributor about a month and a half ago. They’ve also stocked up, but if they run out of rice paper to wrap their crab imperial parcels or spring rolls, they’d rather take them off the menu than use wheat-based wrappers, “because that won’t be Vietnamese,” chef Matt Le-Khac said via email. And when it comes to the rarer morning dew rice paper, he added — thin enough that it doesn’t need to be dipped into water, since the moisture in the greens is enough to hydrate it — Bolero has bought a three-year supply.
For these restaurant owners, this is just another part of running a restaurant now. Shortages have changed the day-to-day for Cheung, but he concludes that part of being a business owner is finding solutions to keep things going as best as possible. For Ghaffar, it’s certainly creating considerations for the future. “I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon,” she says. “When we talk about expansion, it definitely makes it harder to swallow.”