Meat shortages leading to surge in shoppers at small grocers

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A look inside Copey’s Butcher Shop.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Problems with the national supply chain for meat has led to some empty store meat counters and limits put in place by many stores on how much one customer can buy.

Large packing plants in Iowa, South Dakota and Indiana that had been shut down because of the spread of the coronavirus among workers began coming back online this week. The shut downs have led grocery chains such as Kroger and Costco to set purchase limits on some meat products, and smaller farm-to-table operations are booked for some types of products through early 2021.

RELATED: At least 2 national chains limiting meat purchases

Shoemaker’s IGA in South Charleston limited some meat sales but owner Rollie Shoemaker said that was less because of a lack of supply than a matter of managing workloads.

“It was killing our meat department because as soon as a cut hit the shelves they were empty and then it was time to go back out there,” he said. “So unless I want to run a meat department 24 hours a day, which is impossible, we kind of had to put a limit.”

Shoemaker’s gets some of its meat from the Longdale Farm in South Charleston. They deliver steaks, brisket and ground beef to the grocery while other products are brought in from other suppliers, including some that rely on the same processors that serve the larger supermarket chain stores, such as Smithfield.

“I don’t really know what alternatives are out there,” he said. “I mean I think it’s gonna impact everybody.”

The store's owner said he expects some shortages to affect Shoemaker's but noted they are in their second month of a surge in business that followed the first wave of quarantine buying. That surge left many stories with empty shelves in March when the coronavirus quarantines first hit the region.

“I think we’ve got one of the better meat departments around anyway, and then when people find out we’re pretty well set on meat, we have a lot of people coming here who normally don’t shop here because of the meat department,” he said.

After first drawing more people south from Springfield early in the pandemic, Shoemaker said he has had customers from as far away as Washington Court House and West Jefferson.

“It’s been pretty amazing talking to some of the people here, where they come from,” he said. “That’s a good thing to have. I know one guy was in here and told us he saw four different counties’ license plates out in our parking lot one day.”

Mark Runyan of Oakview Meats in Champaign County has also seen a surge in demand and many new customers since the early days of the pandemic.

“It’s grown dramatically,” he said. “And I think the interesting part of it is that to start with some of it was just because they couldn’t find meat anyplace else. Then it’s kind of changed now to once they bought it, they really liked it.”

Runyan’s meat is sourced locally – raised either on his farm or one nearby – but his shop on State Route 54 near Urbana still has to rely on a third party to process it. He recently had to start using a second processor on top of his normal processor because first one has seen a big increase in volume.

RELATED: Farmer’s markets see increased interest

Beyond local grocers and meat shops, area consumers could have one more option for local meat if problems persist nationally.

Representatives at two area butcher shops said they are inundated with orders these days, too.

Mike Janow, the head butcher at Copey’s Butcher Shop in Medway, said he is operating at full capacity both to stock the cases in their store and to fulfill orders for sides of beef from customers looking to stock their own freezers for the long haul.

“It could be months before we even get around to starting (on sides of beef) because we’re so busy we can’t even keep meat in the case hardly,” said Janow. Copey’s also buys meat from other processors to keep the store case full with all kinds of cuts. “So we have plenty of meat right now in the case if people are wanting to come just shop for what we have, but as far as sides of beef, it’ll be a long way out before we get any of those.”

To the north and west, Winner’s Quality Meats in Darke County is experience similar challenges both as a supplier and a retailer.

With a grocery store in Osgood, a farm in Greenville and a processing plant in Yorkshire, company president Brian Winner said they see the impact of the coronavirus pandemic from multiple angles.

“We are seeing a lot of people from Dayton and Lima coming to buy meat from us since their places are out of meat,” Winner wrote in an email. “We have been working at 110% for the past couple months in trying to keep up.”

They supply meat sellers throughout the region – including Dorothy Lane Market — and sell direct to customers who want beef or pork in bulk. Those kinds of orders are backed up through February 2021 and November 2020, respectively.

They have closed their retail shops but are still accepting orders by phone and online at winnersmeats.com.

For those interested in finding more local sources of meat or produce, Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Ty Higgins pointed to a new directory available online from the Ohio State College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Extension department.

That can be found at u.osu.edu/localfoodproducers and, as a relatively new resource, is still growing.

“If there’s any positives coming out of this for agriculture, it is that direct-to-consumer sale,” Higgins said. “We are seeing those sales of freezer meat and a produce boom, and I think more than anything, this crisis is opening their eyes to see that there are advantages to having someone across the way that might grow freezer beef or pork or vegetables that they can deliver to your door.”