As the owner of a busy restaurant in the heart of New York City, Stathis Antonakopoulos prides himself on serving freshly prepared food to a loyal clientele.
But these days, Antonakopoulos says he’s had to cut corners to keep his Carnegie Diner & Cafe afloat. The best example: For the restaurant’s onion rings, which are always in demand, he now uses a frozen product instead of preparing it himself.
Due to supply chain issues, Antonakopoulos cannot easily source the pre-cut onions he used to use in the dish. And with his limited staff — like so many restaurateurs across the country, he’s been struggling to find workers lately — he can’t afford to have a prep cook spend time slicing onions into perfect rings when there are more important tasks that it must be done.
Still, it’s a decision that pains Antonakopoulos. “I really like doing everything from scratch,” he said.
Many restaurateurs face the same dilemma. And like Antonakopoulos, they’re increasingly turning to ready-made products to make ends meet.
Buyers Edge Platform, a company that supports foodservice operators, has analyzed over $10 billion in purchases from US restaurants over the past six months and found that reliance on these prepackaged products is increasing in almost every menu category increases.
Orders for frozen instant soups and soup bases are up 54%, according to Buyers Edge, while orders for frozen desserts are up 32%.
And what about onion rings? While Buyers Edge data didn’t get as specific, the company did note that orders for frozen appetizers were up 32%.
The trend extends to beverages, too, with orders for bartenders up 32%, Buyers Edge said.
Christina Davie Donahue, president of Buyers Edge Platform, said supply chain and staffing issues are the main drivers behind the ready-made boom. “Restaurants really need to look for alternatives,” she said.
This trend is supported by companies like Sysco SYY,
and US Foods USFD,
two of the largest suppliers to restaurants. And both companies are capitalizing on this by offering a growing range of products designed to make restaurants’ jobs easier.
Stacey Kinkaid, vice president of product development at US Foods, cites his carne asada steak strips as a recent example. Like many pre-made offerings, the strips are offered with versatility in mind, she said, noting that they can be used in everything from fajitas to salads. “They’re one of our most successful products,” said Kinkaid.
Other factors also come into play with the prefabricated boom.
Einav Gefen, senior vice president at Restaurant Associates, a well-known foodservice operator that operates restaurants in museums, shops and other locations across the country, says demand for niche dining options, including gluten-free and vegan, is adding pressure on operator. Restaurants can only cook so many types of food for so many customers, but if they want to welcome all guests, they may have to rely on pre-made products — say, a gluten-free pizza crust — to have those options on hand.
“The demand for customization has increased tenfold in recent years,” says Gefen.
Not that pre-made means the restaurant just puts a dish in the microwave and then serves it up. In many cases they use this article as the basis for a dish that is finished in the house. It’s part of what’s commonly referred to in the industry as “speed scratch” cooking, a faster way to prepare food while still retaining some of the restaurant’s own stamp.
Sysco vice president of merchandising Victoria Gutierrez points to the frozen cauliflower pizza crust, a gluten-free and vegan offering, as an example of something that feeds into this “speed scratch” idea. That said, the restaurant might not make the crust, but “they can top it and do whatever they want to keep it exciting.”
““Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope.””
Still, for some restaurant professionals, the idea of taking even the slightest shortcut can lead down a dangerous path and, in turn, go against what food should be about.
“Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope,” said Megan Brown, chef at Anything At All, a New York City restaurant that opened last year. Brown added that she tries to make as much of her own restaurant as possible, including the jam that’s served at breakfast.
Brown also noted that when she makes an exception, she often doesn’t source the products from a large, corporate-style supplier, but from an independent supplier with a specialty. For example, Brown said she buys some of her desserts from “a one-woman pastry shop just outside of Brooklyn.”
Of course, the rules for chain restaurants, especially fast food places, are different than for fine dining or even more casual but independent places. A chef is unlikely to cater to every burger in a chain that sells millions a year.
But even in fine dining restaurants, there are certain shortcuts that are generally considered acceptable. Many such establishments do not bake their own bread. Desserts are also often outsourced.
“You can’t do everything, that’s for sure,” says Stephen Zagor, a veteran restaurant consultant.
As for diner owner Stathis Antonakopoulos, he said he can live with the frozen onion rings for now. But he refuses to compromise on many other menu items, whether it’s his homemade cheesecake or the ever-popular omelettes. On the latter, he noted he could save time by using an egg mix, but the taste just isn’t the same.
So he goes the more labor-intensive route. “We crack every egg,” he says.