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COVID-19 impacts food distribution industry as restaurants reopen

(WTVG)
Published: May. 18, 2020 at 9:26 PM EDT
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As restaurants begin to reopen and prepare for dine-in customers later this week, the food distribution industry is adjusting to the increased demand as well. Right now, some products are hard to come by.

Coronavirus couldn't stop the wheels at Sofo Foods from turning. But things of course did change to be CDC compliant.

"We are not a broadliner. We are not the Syscos or the Gordon Food Services of the world. We have a specialty," said Joe Sofo, president of Sofo Foods.

The family-owned business headquartered in Toledo considers itself the largest ethnic food distributor in the Midwest. The company supplies products to roughly 4,000 restaurants in the Toledo area, from pizzerias to fine dining.

"Six hundred fifty of our customers closed their doors. So, that was 20 percent of our business approximately out of Toledo," said Sofo.

Sofo says so far the produce market has been just fine, but the same can't be said for the meat market. Sofo's can't get ham for example, since many plants have been forced to cease operations.

"With that being done, They are telling us the protein segment will not be right for about four to six months," said Sofo.

The effects trickle down to Sofo's customer base.

"The cheese market for instance four weeks ago, five weeks ago plummeted down to under a dollar a pound. We've never seen that in our lifetime and we buy more cheese than anybody in the country for the pizzerias," said Sofo.

On the flip-side, Sofo believes places that adapted to carryout, delivery and curbside pick up are thriving. Local spots they supply like Balance Pan-Asian Grille figured out how to survive.

"It's not as big a deal as I thought it would be," said CJ, co-founder/chef of Balance Grille.

CJ says for the most part so far, food distribution has gone smoothly during the pandemic. Balance required no modified menu and everything customers want is available.

As more restaurants reopen, shifting supply and demand, his main concern is a looming price hike.

"We're just kind of bracing and hopefully it doesn't happen, but I think there will be some dramatic price increases in the beef market as well for sure," said CJ.

Even though outdoor dining could resume last Friday and this Thursday marks the reopening date for inside dining, places like Balance Grille are sticking with the curbside pick up option only for likely at least another a month to play it safe.