EASTON — Lakisha Gilkerson has a big problem with those little individual ketchup packets.
There’s simply not enough to satisfy her ketchup-craving family. The 32-year-old wife and mother of three did have a small refrigerator drawer brimming with the stuff. Now it’s bare.
“My kids put ketchup on everything from their chicken tenders to french fries,” she said, standing outside Easton’s Aldi’s.
Apparently, that love of the tangy condiment is in their DNA. “They take after their daddy, he eats it on everything, including his steak,” she said, making a disgusted face.
The Gilkerson family now satisfies their desire with Costco-size bottled ketchup now, as those handy individual packets are another supply chain victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. From lumber to used car prices to the breakfast cereal Grape Nuts all were recently affected by COVID’s impact on the supply chain.
In a period where dinning trends switched from dine-in to deliveries, pickup and takeout, ketchup packets are one of scarce commodities. In Talbot County, restaurants that uses the individual packet are not immune from the trend. Managers and owners are reporting supply shortages and skyrocketing prices. To offset the 13 to 18 percent cost increase per packet, some eateries increased prices while others switched brands. Locally-owned eateries said the price increase has hit an industry nearly decimated by the pandemic at perhaps the worst possible time.
“You have to bump up prices and people get upset about the increase,” explained Ric Brice, owner of Hot Off the Coals BBQ in Easton, who’s paying 18 percent more for the packets.
Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advised dining established to use single serving condiments in an effort to combat the virus.
In an informal survey of half a dozen local restaurants that said the use individual packets last week found the steep price jump of is just one supply cost increase. Managers said stock items from cups, to to-go bags have increased.
“We are trying to bounce back from a pandemic. These increases are just hurting us even more,” said one assistant manager, who wasn’t permitted to speak publicly, adding restaurants and pubs, even in the best of economic times, operate on razor-thin profits. The businesses surveyed said the increases supplies have hindered giving some former employees a return-to-work call.
Many restaurants are no longer dropping packets by the handful with an order, customers must now request the country’s most popular condiment. Kelsey Gist, assistant manager at The Coffee Trappe on Main Street said its now policy customers must ask for ketchup packets, “were no longer just throwing them in the bag with their order.” Gist said. The Coffee Trappe has seen a decline in demand for ketchup packages as dine-in service has returned.
“I was use to getting a handful in the bag when doing the drive-thru” at fast food restaurants, said Gilkerson, adding she stored packets in her glove box for running her kids, ages 4 to 9, to doctor’s appointments and sport practices.
Eateries said customers are having a bit of trouble accepting new policies of limiting the number of ketchup packages for an order.
“They are getting upset when we aren’t giving them a handful of packets,” said Brice. “They say ‘give me a handful,’ but then they throw six to eight of the packages away.” Its estimated 6.5 billion individual packets of ketchup are tossed each year, according to the website Quora.
In response to the shortage and surge in demand, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz announced recently it is increasing production by 25 percent producing about 12 billion — yes, billion — packets annually.
While Heinz has not release a start up date for increase production, knowing her small stockpile of 1 inch by 2 inch packets is making a comeback excited Gilkerson. “My kids and husband will be happy, so I’ll be happy” to have her small arsenal of individual ketchup packets replenish, she said, with a light laugh.
Brice is more cautious. The small-business owner has seen a few supply-chain shortages before in his career and seldom does the price return, he said.