Local business owners adjust to rising inflation

Published 9:17 am Tuesday, February 1, 2022

By SCOTT MIMS | Special to the Reporter

As inflation continues to rise and supply chain issues continue to plague the economy, business owners in Shelby County are facing more challenging times than ever, and many are having to make unprecedented adjustments to continue to provide the goods and services that their customers expect on a daily basis.

Nedra Moore of bakery Creations Galore & Moore in historic downtown Calera has faced more than her share of challenges. She was in the midst of renovating her business space in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S.

“I noticed maybe about three or four months ago there’s been another increase in prices, everything from our ice cream supplier—they’ve gone up on prices—to containers,” she said. “That is one of the largest ones is just the containers, like to put the cupcakes or muffins or our cake slices in. The price of those has almost tripled. And then for branding you have your stickers and boxes and things like that; the prices of those have gone up.”

Moore has to be strategic when ordering ingredients and supplies, and one strategy involves taking advantage of sales and coupons as much as possible. She can purchase items wholesale and use reward accounts. She also uses equipment to make some of her own branding supplies instead of relying on other companies to print them.

Moore must be resourceful with ingredients too, and because her products are made from scratch, there is some wiggle room—but when essential ingredients are in short supply, it inevitably has an impact on her sales.

“There’s nothing that I [have] stopped making,” Moore said. “I did have to stop making lemon pound cakes for a little while, but it was mostly because they were out of lemons. There was just a shortage on lemons, and then at the end of the holiday season there was a shortage on cream cheese. There still is a cream cheese shortage, and one of our products is our mini cheesecakes. We can’t make as many as we usually do just because we have to go to three or four locations just to try to find the cream cheese.”

Fortunately, help sometimes comes from unexpected places. One thing that keeps businesses afloat, Moore said, is the faithfulness of regular customers, and one customer in particular—Natalie Bores—wanted to make sure Moore had what she needed to make a certain product.

“Someone in our community, their mother has a lemon tree, and I even posted about it on our social media. They brought us lemons because they knew there was a shortage,” Moore said. “They wanted the lemon cake that bad that they went and got us lemons. It’s a really good community…it was just a blessing. Just to have that sense of community and that they’re rallying behind you to see you to keep progressing has really kept us going.”

Still, there are challenges, and not just with purchasing ingredients but also with essential supplies. Moore said the cost of glass cleaner and disinfectant is going up, and of course, these days, business owners must purchase PPE—none of which is immune to the effects of increasing inflation.

Moore noted that a case containing 10 boxes of disposable gloves now costs more than $100.

“It makes it a little bit more challenging,” she said. “It’s just things like that and the cost of masks and things that you typically didn’t have to worry about pre-pandemic.”

But there are other things that business owners like Moore can do to survive during an ongoing pandemic to make their business more “recession proof,” such as providing order forms online and curbside service. Both of these are part of Moore’s playbook.

“I’m remaining hopeful,” she said.

Meanwhile at Beignets & Lattes in Helena, Carolyn Linski continues to serve up her popular New Orleans-style beignets, albeit with a different cooking oil due to sharp cost increases. She indicated it costs about $100 for a 5-gallon container of the cottonseed oil they were previously using, and it would take two and a half of them to fill her fryer.

“The cottonseed oil that we were using, it doubled in price over one night,” she said. “So we didn’t have to go up in our prices, we got a different oil. It tastes the same, it does the same. It doesn’t last as long but pretty darn close.”

According to Linski, the replacement oil does not affect the quality of her food, which was an important thing to consider. But the cost of everything has gone up, from plastic cups and straws for cold drinks to base ingredients.

“I think even our beignet mix, it went up a little bit. But we can’t change that; that’s a must,” Linski said.

Something that can be changed is the container. A while back, Beignets & Lattes switched from foldable boxes to pizza boxes for their beignets, something that worked to their advantage because Linski said they are not only more affordable but also work better.

One result of the pandemic was losing employees, but having a smaller employee base has helped the business even though Linski did not want to lose workers. It has also helped to shorten the store’s hours from closing at 6 p.m. to closing most days at 1 p.m.

“That alone has helped a lot, because we’re not just sitting here because we weren’t very busy, so my labor percentage went up,” she said.

Linski and her daughter, Heather Crittenden, are in the process of opening a new restaurant, Azalea Café in Alabaster, which will be a brunch-themed venue featuring her beignets and coffee among other selections.

Also in Alabaster across from Shelby Baptist Medical Center is another veteran of the restaurant business, Tyre Stuckey, the owner of Birds & Burgers. Stuckey said that in his 22 years in the business, he has never seen anything like the inflation going on now.

“Combat would be the word I would use, and I feel more partnered than ever with my food vendors because they can’t sell what they can’t get. It’s impossible. This is a literal combat with trying to keep an idea alive,” he said. “I never wanted to create this idea to fail. No one wants to create something to fail, so the environment that we’re in right now is extremely volatile to continue to serve the customer, but we are not a nonprofit. We are a for-profit institution, and we must adjust.”

Like others who are dedicated to their customers, one thing that Stuckey refuses to adjust is his food quality. That is part of what he calls the “Birds & Burgers Promise.” He says he will not downgrade to any ingredient that would compromise that promise.

“I will not change the quality of my ingredients,” Stuckey said. “My purpose in starting a business was real food at a drive-thru, and I will not change my purpose. And the environment is pushing me to do it, but I will not do it.”

Stuckey has become accustomed to “shuffling” paper products in order to keep costs down as much as possible. He makes sure everybody has a straw, a cup, a bag—but Birds & Burgers has not been able to get French fry containers for three months so they are having to box fries, which is costing money.

Stuckey says the economic atmosphere has caused him to view competition differently. For the first time, he says he will send employees to his peers. This is because he wants every restaurant to succeed.

“When a restaurant closes, my eyes weaken,” Stuckey said.

He admitted that he is a bit surprised that consumers are not adjusting to the change as quickly. People seem to think that the prices are going to go back down soon. Of course, being in the restaurant business gives Stuckey a different lens so he at least knows if there will be any change in prices over the next 14 days.

Stuckey indicated he doesn’t see any changes happening soon.