$14 chicken wings and $40 lobster? Why food costs are forcing South Florida restaurants to hike menu prices

·5 min read

For Bobby Stern, owner of Wicked Wings in Plantation, chicken wings have lately been as tough to find as employees willing to work.

When his wing joint debuted in March 2020, a 40-pound case of fresh jumbo wings cost $58.88. Now his wholesaler charges triple: $190. Even deep-fryer oil jumped in price from $18.98 per jug to $49.98 over the same period. Customers are clucking about his pricier wings, now $13.99 for a 10-piece compared to $9.99 pre-pandemic.

“I keep saying food shortages and no workers are raising everything,” Stern says of his menu. “One lady last night complained about the price and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice any increases at Publix.’ Well, I have. I could have gone to a lesser-quality wing but our customers appreciate it.”

South Florida restaurant owners like Stern say a perfect storm of soaring ingredient costs and ongoing staff shortages leave them no choice but to hike menu prices. Customers, in turn, say menu sticker shock is making them reconsider where they choose to dine out. Others expect restaurants’ portion sizes to justify these higher prices. If there’s good news for diners and owners, hospitality experts predict local menu prices will keep ballooning this summer but stop rising by the fall.

“I think rising prices are driven by the cost of raw goods and commodity items,” says Michael Cheng, dean of Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. “Eventually those will stabilize and come back down” in a few months, he says.

Only then can local restaurant supply and demand even out, he adds.

Data released on Thursday by the federal Consumer Price Index says consumer prices for food, gas, clothing and other commodities jumped 5% overall from May 2020 to May 2021, the biggest inflation since the Great Recession in 2008. Even fast-casual Tex-Mex chain Chipotle jacked up menu prices by 4 percent to entice staff with competitive wages.

Meredith Joy, of Plantation, says she was shocked when her bill for jambalaya at Even Keel Fish Shack in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea totaled $28 minus tip.

“Once those things happen, I won’t go back to those restaurants because they lost my business,” says Joy, who has also spotted higher prices at her favorite eateries Tin Fish in Sunrise and Old Heidelberg in Fort Lauderdale. “I try to frequent restaurants that I want to stay in business, especially after COVID.”

Steve DiSalvo, owner of DiSalvo’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant in Hollywood, says he was apprehensive to raise menu prices, especially considering how residents were feeling the pinch from other pandemic-fueled expenses.

But DiSalvo’s landlord raised rent, cases of chicken wings nearly doubled in cost — from about $90 to $170 — and he had to raise menu prices and wages to keep his most-reliable staff. This has made it especially difficult to balance his profit margins, he says.

“With the uncertainty of how much business costs are going to increase, there’s no way to know how much menu prices will be in the future,” DiSalvo says. But “the customers are there.”

Peter Ricci, Florida Atlantic University’s hospitality program director, says a surge of freshly vaccinated diners has also contributed to rising prices at restaurants.

“Basically, it’s people cooped up for too long that are now ready to go back out and do some fun things,” he says. “At the same time, we’ve had gas price increases and labor wage increases, and this is all going to shake out to higher prices.

“I don’t think [menu price hikes will] be long-term but I don’t think it’ll [go away] super-fast, either,” he says.

Janann Wade, of Boca Raton, sympathizes with owners as they face rising business costs, but she’s noticed some restaurants engage in the “stinky” practice of skimping on portion sizes.

When she noticed the size of a $15 salad at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Coral Springs, she walked out. “How long are people going to play the COVID card?” she says.

All this has caused Christy Shalley, manager of Kelly’s Landing in Fort Lauderdale, to strike a balance between running her business and forcing customers to shoulder the extra burden.

New England lobster meat since April has jumped from $27 to $40 a pound while king crab, over the same period, shot from $19 to $32. Because king crab is so expensive, Kelly’s King Crab Wednesdays dine-in special, at $25, is considered a loss leader, she adds.

“It comes with the hope people order extra appetizers and drinks,” she says. “We have to come up with a happy medium.”

Rob Menendez, owner of It’s a Cubano B in Pompano Beach, refused to pass higher menu prices to customers after his wholesaler doubled the price for boneless skinless chicken thighs from $1.20 pre-pandemic to $2.40 per pound now, and bone-in pork butt from $1.10 to $2.50 per pound. He used these ingredients for burritos, quesadillas and Cuban sandwiches.

Now Menendez has run out of money. He’ll close his office-park Cuban café for good on June 12, after struggling with fewer customers and higher-than-ever food costs.

“We didn’t want people coming back with big sticker shock,” Menendez says. “But it doesn’t matter now. The positive side to us closing is we won’t be hurt with high costs in the slow summer season.”

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