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Restaurant Supply

How rising meat prices impact Des Moines restaurants, menus

Darren Warth noticed that chicken was getting more expensive last December. First, it was $90 a case, then $100. $120. $150. By April, it was beef prices that were shooting up. And in June, it was pork.

At Smokey D’s BBQ, Warth’s Des Moines barbeque joint of 15 years, skyrocketing meat prices spell trouble.

In the second week of June, Warth decided to be transparent with his patrons in a Facebook post detailing a change to the restaurant’s customer-favorite brisket. The price to purchase brisket flats from his supplier had doubled to over $7 a pound. Instead of up-charging customers for a brisket flat sandwich, Warth decided to make do with selling only brisket points, a cheaper cut typically reserved for burnt ends.

Some customers told Warth that they’d happily pay more for the tender slices of brisket flats, but for the average customer, the price increase from $8.29 a sandwich to nearly $12 just for the meat (and not including the bun) was an unreasonable ask, in Warth’s opinion.

Warth has continually resisted increasing the price of menu items, not wanting to make permanent changes for what could be a temporary increase in meat prices. He’s seen short-term changes to market prices enough times to understand that it isn’t worth pricing himself out of the market. But this time, he says, things are different, more unpredictable.

Mario Pagano of Des Moines seasons 300 pounds of brisket before putting it into a smoker at Smokey D's BBQ on Wednesday

“We’ve never seen anything like this at all. It’s just astronomical,” Warth said. “It’s truly the perfect storm in the meat industry. I’m not sure when the relief comes.”

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Many possible factors in rising meat costs

The higher prices — which the Washington Post reports have been seen worldwide — may be due to increased livestock production costs, short staffing in meat processing plants and an overall increase in demand as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is unknown how long meat prices will remain elevated, economists note that historically, prices are dependent on not only supply and demand, but also the cost of production.

Seasoned brisket ready to be put into a smoker at Smokey D's BBQ.

For restaurateurs, high production costs combined with rising meat prices are creating a dilemma: Should they stop selling higher-priced cuts such as chicken wings and brisket flats, charge customers more or endure a financial loss with no guarantee of when prices will stabilize?

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“There’s been a consideration of pulling things like chicken wings off our menus,” said Jeff Bruning, owner of Full Court Press. The hospitality group manages 16 restaurants around the Des Moines metro, including Iowa Taproom, El Bait Shop, the Royal Mile and, of course, The Chicken.