One mother trekked 45 minutes to access Benji Arslanovski's stash. Down to the last of her supply, another was terrified of running out before she found him. A grandfather in his 80s, helping a daughter stuck at work, drove an hour to meet the man who could get what so many parents are desperately and fruitlessly searching for.
Last week, Arslanovski watched as a formula shortage struck parents around the country and realized he had special access to a hoard of the stuff. Over the past week, the 51-year-old Dallas-Fort Worth-area restaurant owner ordered 56 cases of baby formula, cleaning out the distributor that normally provides his business, Our Place Restaurant, with things like toilet paper, paper towels and chicken. Although he initially intended to sell it at cost, he has instead given it away to hundreds of people trying to feed their babies.
"The moms, the dads not knowing - are they going to be able to feed their babies? And it makes me sad to think - because my kids all eat solid foods now - but man, not knowing if they can eat would be scary," he told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Parents' fears could continue for weeks, if not months. The shortage - a perfect storm of pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, high inflation and formula safety recalls - started months ago but has squeezed parents especially hard recently, The Post reported. Many now find themselves racing to multiple stores and scouring the Internet to try to score the increasingly precious item.
Video: White House outlines steps to mitigate baby formula shortage
On Monday, formula maker Abbott Nutrition reached an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration to fix safety issues tied to a Michigan plant that's been closed for more than three months, according to The Post. Abbott has previously said it would take as long as two months after such an agreement for the company to get formula back on store shelves.
Arslanovski and his wife have three sons - ages 6, 4 and 2 - so they aren't among the parents who are scrambling. But while watching news of the shortage, he remembered that US Foods, his former employer and current supplier, stocked formula since the company has contracts with health-care facilities.
On Thursday, Arslanovski went to the company's online ordering system and found 56 cases were available. He consulted his wife, who confirmed the formula was for general use and not a specialty item, then bought six cases and announced on the restaurant's Facebook page that formula was available. He said he intended to sell it at cost until one of the first parents to take him up on the offer, a mother, cried as she told him she was so grateful he ended her odyssey to secure food for her newborn.
He didn't charge her.
"And I said, 'What the heck, hell with it, I'm just going to give it away free,' " Arslanovski said. "And so I did that, and it went so quick" - in less than an hour, he added.
He restocked. This time, he bought 12 cases at $66 a pop. That went fast, too, so he got 20 more. In total, he spent about $3,700 and "just kept giving them out."
Arslanovski said he checked with US Foods to make sure gobbling up the company's supply wouldn't put anyone in a jam.
"They're great about what I was doing," he added.
Arslanovski said his ad hoc formula operation is his attempt to return the Dallas-Fort Worth community's generosity and support of his business during the pandemic. As Our Place Restaurant struggled, Arslanovski scrambled. He secured two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, opened as a carryout-only restaurant, cut servers' schedules and encouraged them to go on partial unemployment and get other jobs until the pandemic waned.
"You've got 41 employees that are looking at you for answers and you just now knowing," he said, adding "covid was scary for restaurant owners . . . man, it was scary."
During those early days of the pandemic, people stopped by to ask how they could help, donated money to servers and ordered food when they probably wouldn't have only because they wanted to help out, he said.
Our Place survived.
"So I kind of wanted to give back to my community," he said.
Arslanovski said he's going to keep buying and giving away formula until the shortage eases. He plans to order any cases US Foods gets in stock, and said employees there have told him they'll alert him when they do. Moreover, a hospital donated more than 100 cases on Tuesday after hearing of his newfound role as a formula middleman. Our Place staff will start giving out the canisters to parents on Wednesday.
Arslanovski said he hopes his project inspires restaurant owners and managers around the country to tap their suppliers for formula and relay it to their communities.
"We're just one little corner of America," he said. "Hopefully, they see this . . . and figure out a way to get it to customers."