Coffee, produce and octopus: Shortages force Westport restaurants to be more creative

Armando and Andrea Brito at their Capuli Restaurant in Westport, Conn. on Wednesday, October 27, 2021.

Armando and Andrea Brito at their Capuli Restaurant in Westport, Conn. on Wednesday, October 27, 2021.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Restaurant owners and chefs said the food shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced them to alter their menus, but it has also caused them to also be more creative.

Andrea Brito, manager and co-owner at Capuli, said the shortages that COVID-19 has causes has created a week-to-week challenge for her, however, it has provided an opportunity for Capuli’s chef to be “innovative.”

“That’s actually chef’s forte,” Brito said. “That’s what he enjoys doing in terms of creating and being innovative with his dishes. On our end, we take it as it comes, but I feel that it’s a little harder on the customers where they are expecting what is written on the menu. They’re understanding of it, but when I do have to let them know we have to substitute it or we don’t have it available it’s a little hard on my end to let them know that.”

Two dishes that have been a challenge for Capuli has been the grilled octopus and the Mediterranean bowl. Brito said the grilled octopus, which is a crowd favorite, was hard to find for almost all of November. The produce for the Mediterranean bowl was also an issue by way of shortages and quality.

She said being a smaller mom and pop restaurant has benefited them since they do all of their own shopping. However, she said there are times when she goes to the restaurant store and certain products have been sold out for weeks.

“We just try to shop around to the different local stores and just pray and hope that they have whatever we need available,” Brito said.

She said it gets a little tougher when it’s a main dish and the needed ingredient is not available, but “chef just has to get creative at that point.”

Jason Milanese, chef at The Boathouse at Saugatuck, said restaurants are not just dealing with food shortages, but also equipment shortages. He said that if restaurants want disposable gloves, they’re hard to get because companies only have so much. At Boathouse, the crew also tried to buy new refrigerators, but were told it would take 26 weeks, nearly six months, to get one.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Milanese said. “I’ve been a chef for over 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“What’s happening is with the labor shortages with these companies they can’t keep up with the demand and it is a trickle down effect to everyone else,” he added.

The biggest items that have impacted Boathouse, Milanese said has been produce as well as ketchup and coffee. He said that they have had to change their coffee brand because they are unable to get their normal dark roast coffee and while ketchup sounds like a “strange” product to say, he said during the summer there were shortages for it.

“Heinz rationed ketchup in the way in which they sold it in bulk to companies,” Milanese said. “That in turn made us only able to buy only so much per month, per week. So there were a lot of times where we were struggling to find it and we’re not going to give out ketchup packets.”

Milanese said that when people look at produce, it’s more than just a food shortage. Labor shortages have also created a quality issue.

He said if somewhere there is a farmer who can’t pick the onions at an optimal time, the onions sit in the field longer and start to go bad. Then they sit in the truck as they come across the country. He said the truck might be running behind because there’s not enough truck drivers so then it gets to the restaurant a little later.

“So sometimes it’s not so much a shortage, it’s a quality issue that arrives here too,” he said. “By the time it gets to us it’s making us creative, but it’s also a struggle to work with something that isn’t the highest quality ingredients.”

Milanese does admit that while this has caused some negative impacts on the restaurant industry, it has created one benefit; paperless menus. He said the QR codes placed on the tables have allowed restaurants to modify their menus more frequently without having the printing costs.

“It’s not ideal and it’s not something that we want,” he said. “We want to go back to the way things were, but it allows us to change our menu daily and change what we don’t have and what we do have.”

Chef Michelle Greenfield, who recently opened her own restaurant called Allium Eatery, said she designed her restaurant to be able to be adaptive and creative with dealing with the current landscape of the industry. She said the restaurant is “able to change with the availability of products.”

She said because her food is seasonally based, she hasn’t had any issues with not being able to find products. Picking and shopping at local farms has also helped her not have to deal with produce issues.

“I try to shop as locally source as possible as far as produce,” she said. “It’s getting into our hands much quicker than getting shipped. The travel traffic of the product is much quicker which means we can work with the product longer because it’s fresher. We’re not wasting those days on travel times.”

serenity.bishop@hearstmediact.com