Amid global supply chain disruptions, Frederick County's service industry adapts

·5 min read

Oct. 23—When a brewery's taps are dry of their popular drafts, patrons may choose to take their business elsewhere.

Over the three or so weeks that Smoketown Creekside was out of its signature lager, bar manager Jake Blackmon estimates 50 people walked out the door when they found out, costing the brewery at least $300.

This may not seem like a substantial cost for a brewery located in Frederick's beer corridor along Carroll Creek, but $300 equals Smoketown's most recent gas bill, Blackmon noted.

Managing unforeseen shortages and delays in everything from aluminum cans to the most basic brewing ingredients has been a balancing act for managers like Blackmon. And the problem has persisted for months.

"We've been feeling supply chain disruptions probably since the pandemic started," Blackmon said.

As clogs in the global supply chain have backlogged international ports and impeded deliveries worldwide, breweries, cafes and restaurants in Frederick County have scrambled to continue serving customers while cushioning the blow of unexpected delays and higher costs.

The disruptions will likely shake consumer confidence, which means less economic activity that may take years to rebuild, said Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.

Weldon's unsure when the delays and shortages will return to normal. Perhaps by next summer, though he estimated it could be as long as two years.

"Honest to goodness, I haven't the faintest idea," he said.

No end in sight

Disruptions have been relatively mild for the average consumer so far. Shortages on a popular draft, an extra dime for a coffee, maybe a few bucks more for a crab dish.

Smoketown first felt the strains of supply shortages in the early months of the pandemic. Unable to serve patrons at the bar, breweries increased their reliance on aluminum cans, something that has been scarce at times.

The shortage became so dire that at one point Smoketown was down to its last row of aluminum cans, Blackmon said. The brewery has resumed normal service, though aluminum supplies still aren't where they once were, and there's now a limit on how much Blackmon can order.

Blackmon said other "weird" shortages have arisen too, in supplies he didn't use to worry about — from the carbon dioxide that keeps taps flowing to raw brewing ingredients like grain, yeast and hops.

"It was scary for a while last month," Blackmon said.

Delays especially impacted Smoketown's production staff. When a brewing ingredient doesn't arrive on time, part-time staff are either needed for less time or not at all. So, rather than working a 10-hour day, part-time staff are limited to a handful of hours if any.

Smoketown hasn't had to raise prices to compensate for disruptions, and aside from the occasional shortage in popular drafts, consumers have been mostly unaffected. A handful of patrons have left when their choice draft was unavailable, Blackmon said, but he added that people have been understanding for the most part.

On Friday, Smoketown's brew tanks were filled and supplies were mostly in order. Blackmon said while supply chain disruptions have forced him and his coworkers to adapt, the changes they've made are sustainable. They can carry on with the delayed shipping.

New shortages, however, would force the brewery to make more adjustments. And that's what worries Blackmon.

"It's the not knowing part," he said.

Shouldering the burden

Serina Roy, who owns Dublin Roasters Coffee, has also experienced supply shortages since 2020. She's had to adapt to minimize the changes that consumers notice.

Despite having plenty of coffee beans, Roy initially had trouble getting boxes and tape to mail her product when high COVID-19 transmission levels prevented customers from physically going to the shop. Then she couldn't get ink for printing labels. Most recently, she's had trouble finding hot lids for to-go cups.

"Every week it's something different," she said.

Roy is content with her company's sales numbers, but as costs rise for a number of the roughly 550 items she regularly purchases, her profits shrink. Costs for some items, like granola, have risen by so much that she's had to stop buying them altogether.

Shortages haven't affected the quality of Roy's coffee, she said, and she has fought to limit any impact on her customers. Aside from carrying fewer products, she's had to slightly bump prices to accommodate for her higher expenditures.

"I've decided to just go through our menu and raise everything at least 10 cents, and then I'll reevaluate at the end of the month and just see if [costs have] gone up again," Roy said. "I'm trying to make it so that it's not impacting the public in such a huge way that it's going to stop them from coming in."

But the price increase hasn't completely solved Dublin Roaster's challenges. Roy has seen more customers since the pandemic has eased, but that has meant adding staff, increasing her payroll and lowering her savings. In the meantime, Roy has asked customers to be patient and understanding of what's transpiring behind the counter.

"We're not trying to get more money out of them, we're just trying to, still, stay afloat," she said.

Brewer's Alley General Manager Jaime Ellis-Ade said she too feels unable to fully provide her customers with the experience they're accustomed to. She ordered cups with the restaurant's logo that were supposed to arrive in July. She's still waiting for them.

Perhaps most noticeable is the change to Brewer's menu items with crab, which executive chef Joe Canlas said have climbed from roughly $30 an entrée to more than $40, depending on market price. Costs have tripled in recent months — $50 per pound instead of the usual $17. Chicken wings have also tripled, though the menu price has remained unchanged.

Despite the disruptions, Ellis-Ade said Brewer's management has strived to be flexible, roll with the punches and operate as close as possible to business as usually. But they can only control so much.

"The world is short-staffed, the world is short-stocked," Ellis-Ade said. "The world is a year behind."

Follow Jack Hogan on Twitter: @jckhogan

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