You can’t make a chicken sandwich without chicken and bread.
But that’s basically the situation that many restaurants in the Wichita area are facing after being notified that food-delivery titan Sysco Foods won’t be delivering food or taking orders from them for the foreseeable future.
Standard practice is for restaurants to order food by 2 p.m. Sunday to have it delivered Monday morning. The restaurants found out they couldn’t place their orders on Sunday, so they got less than 24 hours notice.
“They pretty much just cut people’s legs off at the knees,” said Ben Arnold, owner of Corporate Caterers and AVI, the restaurant in the Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel in downtown Wichita. “The busiest place in town this morning was Sam’s (Club), because everybody who owns a little restaurant or food truck or bar ended up at Sam’s today trying to buy groceries to get open.”
Arnold said Sysco is still taking his company’s orders, but he’s been shifting to other suppliers and reducing his Sysco buys for months anyway because of delayed deliveries and other problems.
In response to an inquiry from The Eagle, Sysco sent a statement that attributed past delivery delays to the kind of national supply chain disruption that has hit many industries during the COVID pandemic.
The statement did not explain the company’s decision to completely cut off some restaurants and a spokesman said he would send an updated and more detailed explanation for the current situation. That did not arrive by deadline.
Vance Davis, general manager of the Classic Town and Country restaurant at Maize Road and Southwest Boulevard, got cut off Sunday.
He said Sysco told him they’re having trouble staffing the necessary positions to continue to service all their clients.
“From what I understand, they can’t get drivers, they have problems with their warehouse people,” he said.
The problem is a side effect of restaurants that were cut back or idled by the COVID pandemic all coming back about the same time, he said.
He said Sysco is dealing with those problems by cutting out their smaller customers. He’s talked to restaurateurs in other states and they’re telling him the same kind of story.
“A small restaurant like me, I’m going to be the last man on the totem pole, compared to Applebee’s or Texas Roadhouse or anything else on these big national contracts these guys have,” he said. “Corporate stores are going to be better off in some cases than mom-and-pop stores . . . When you’re in business like that you don’t want to lose your national accounts, so the smaller accounts kind of get left in the wake.”
Davis said he has backups for most of the food he usually gets from Sysco, so it’s not cutting into business too much yet.
But those supply channels aren’t unlimited and if he and others do have to tap membership-club and even ordinary grocery stores for food to stay in business, that could lead to shortages and higher prices, like what happened in the early days of the pandemic when shoppers started hoarding paper supplies against the possibility of running out, he said.
“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “Remember the toilet paper issue? Think about what that would do to food. You’re talking about a bigger issue than just toilet paper.”
Some businesses weren’t cut off completely by Sysco but are still feeling the effect.
Dan Marriotti owns the two Il Primo coffeehouse cafes in Wichita, one at Central and Woodlawn and the other in the Epic Center office building downtown.
He said Sysco is still delivering to his Central location but cut off the Epic Center cafe.
“We get a delivery every Monday, and we aren’t even getting today’s delivery,” he said. “And from what I understand from the conversations that I’ve had with them, it’s going to be quite a long time.”
“The frustrating part for me is we spend a lot of money with them,” he added. “Never been late on a payment, never had any issues with them and we’re being dropped in the dust and there’s nothing we can do about it. And I know there’s a lot of other people here in town that are having the same conversations this morning.”
He said all he can do is try to plug the holes using other suppliers, but that doesn’t happen overnight because it takes time to set up new vendor contracts.
He said he hopes customers will bear with him and “understand that if we’re out of product, if we tell you we can’t get you something, it’s not because we’re not trying, it’s because we’re being put in an unwinnable situation.”
Contributing: Denise Neil and Carrie Rengers of The Eagle