Selling out of meat is nothing new for the native-Texan who moved to Denver in 2019 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the nineteen months he’s served smoked meats around town, Barbosa has quickly drawn rave reviews from those craving craft barbecue. They routinely line up to devour his signature beef brisket, homemade sausages, and moist smoked turkey breast that he may, or may not, dip in a little melted butter before serving.
“Poultry and butter go great together,” Barbosa quips.
Moments of levity have been rarer for Barbosa and other pitmasters across the country this year. They’ve seen the cost of their menu staples: beef, pork and poultry steadily increase since the pandemic’s start last year. And while most of the food industry has experienced the pain, pitmasters feel the price increases are the most searing for barbecue restaurant owners.
The cost of meats increased 12.6% between September 2020 and September 2021, according to unadjusted data from the Consumer Price Index. The cost of pork rose 12.7% in the same period. Poultry prices rose 6.1%, while overall beef prices climbed the most at 17.6%. Beef roasts, the category brisket falls in, increased 20.8% the past 12 months.
“When we started the business in Denver [in March 2020], USDA prime brisket we were getting it for about $3.19 to $3.29 a pound,” explains Barbosa. “Now we’re looking at about $5.59 a pound.”
At that cost, Barbosa took his beloved brisket off the menu.
“We could have raised our prices to $35-$40 a pound to keep the margins where they needed to be to keep the business running. But, you know, at the end of the day I don’t want to charge anyone that much.”
Across town, Chris Nicki was faced with the same dilemma.
Two and half years after he opened Hank’s, Nicki paid his staff their final wages and permanently closed his barbecue restaurant this August. The same butcher paper he used to wrap moist brisket now covers the restaurant’s windows.
“The prices were astronomical. And on top of that, there were weeks where we couldn’t get things,” explains Nicki. “There were times I couldn’t get ribs and pork. People would come in and they wouldn’t understand that because they could see them at the grocery store.
“And I can go buy it at the grocery store for that price, but we’re not going to hit our margin if we do that.”
Surging Costs, Shrinking Supply
Price increases and decreased meat availability are directly linked to the supply chain’s processing level.
“There is a critical labor shortage which slows down production, making goods scarce,” Sarah Little, NAMI’s spokesperson, told CNN in an email. “Retailers and Food Service then must compete for a limited amount of meat to ensure a steady supply for consumers. This competition has driven up the price for consumers.”
But the industry has drawn sharp criticism the past year, including from the White House, about its practices and the continuing rise of meat prices.
“When you see that level of consolidation and the increase in prices, it raises a concern about pandemic profiteering.”
“The real concern we have is that consumers are facing higher prices, and the growers are not getting paid higher,” said Deese.
In a move to help quell rising meats costs, the White House announced plans to enforce antitrust laws, investigate possible price-fixing among major meat processors, and create more industry competition.
In response to Deese’s claims of pandemic profiteering, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, Inc., one of the top four US meat processing companies, pointed CNN to July testimony from Shane Miller, the group president for the company’s beef and pork unit, in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee.
“Consumer demand for finished beef outpaced our ability to supply it, and there were more live cattle than the market could harvest resulting in lower live prices,” Miller told senators. “And on the consumer end, limited ability to supply finished product to meet strong demand drove prices higher.”
JBS Foods, National Beef and Cargill, Inc. did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story.
Regardless of what is said and done in Washington, DC, pitmasters like Barbosa, Scott and Nicki just want to see prices stop increasing before more barbecue restaurants are forced to close for good.
“Coming from a ‘mom-and-pop’ operation, I know,” says Scott. “I feel the pain about wondering about higher prices and making it to the next day.
“Help us out and create a balance where we can all stay in business and continue to be an addition to the economy.”