'This is the tip of the iceberg': How canceled Sysco orders impact Phoenix restaurants

On Oct. 8, Phoenix restaurant owner Mike Baum waited six hours in line at the Sysco warehouse in Tolleson to pick up food for his restaurant — only to be turned away, empty-handed.

While he was able to secure an order the following week, after another four-hour wait, he worries this problem isn't going away anytime soon.

Baum and other local restaurant owners are reporting challenges in obtaining supplies, not only from Sysco, but other distributors.

"I can't find corn on the cob right now, and it's corn season. That means there are no trucks to get corn from Kansas to Phoenix," Baum said. "So, what I think we see from the food industry side is a massive supply-chain problem."

What is causing supply disruptions?

Sysco is one of the largest food and kitchenware suppliers in the country, with one location in Arizona. Baum was told by his sales representative that labor shortages, including a lack of truck drivers and warehouse workers, were the cause of the Phoenix-area delay, he said.

Sysco hosted a hiring event on Sept. 30 for warehouse workers, according to the company's website. Benefits advertised included a bonus of up to $3,000 on top of up to a $70,000 salary, health insurance options, and a 401(k) plan.

Shannon Mutschler, a spokesperson for Sysco, emailed a statement to The Arizona Republic that read:

"Sysco regrets that we have had to delay or pause service for a limited number of customers in various locations. This is mainly due to unprecedented labor shortages in the industry. We are aggressively recruiting delivery partners and warehouse associates, and our goal is to restore service to our impacted customers as soon as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused our customers. We expect this to be a temporary situation."

Mutschler did not confirm the number of orders that were canceled recently in Phoenix.

'Not worth it': Amid a labor shortage, former restaurant workers share why they left

How canceled deliveries impact restaurants

Baum owns Dilla Libre, a restaurant with locations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, as well as a food truck. He showed up in person at the Sysco site after he learned the company was unable to deliver his order.

"The line was down the street for people picking up their order. It was like mass confusion, just about a riot is about to break out," Baum described. "Needless to say, it’s very frustrating. It’s very hard to have a food business when there’s no food to sell."

Baum said some of them then turned to Restaurant Depot, a wholesale food service supplier with three locations in Arizona: Phoenix, Mesa and Tucson. But shelves quickly emptied.

In response to his canceled order, Baum took a few items off the menu temporarily and purchased ingredients from a grocery store in order to bring those items back. The time he spent looking for food meant time away from managing the restaurant, he said.

"One of the issues I see here is, from a macroeconomic perspective, we are looking at the edge of a cliff ... What people don’t realize is this is happening all over the country," Baum said.

Time for a change: When the pandemic left him unemployed, he made bagels

Supply issues go beyond Sysco

Julia Chugerman, owner of Verdura restaurant in Phoenix, said she works with US Foods, another major food service distributor, and Grand Avenue Produce Co., a local supplier, to source ingredients.

There's been a low supply of oyster mushrooms, which Verdura uses for one of its best-selling dishes, she said. Brussels sprouts arrive moldy or they are not in stock, she added. Verdura has had to swap Brussels sprouts for broccoli in the General Pow cauliflower dish, she said.

The Republic reached out to a representative from Grand Avenue Produce Co., but they declined to comment.

Ross Simon, who owns several bars in Phoenix, said his Sysco order was canceled last week, and fortunately, he didn't have to wait long when he went to Tolleson to pick up his order.

But Sysco isn't the only distributor he's run into problems with — some days he can't get certain products from his liquor supplier, another day he might have trouble sourcing straws or napkins.

The Republic reported in April that a bottleneck at West Coast ports was causing delays in tapioca shipments to Arizona boba shops. Bloomberg also reported that labor shortages at United Natural Foods, another major distributor, caused delays for some imported goods, such as cheese, coconut water and spices.

'It's getting crazy': Yes, the boba shortage has hit Arizona too. Here's what that means

The supply chain disruption is compounding other hurdles the hospitality industry has had to endure, from the coronavirus pandemic to labor shortages, Simon said. He has sometimes had to remove cocktails and dishes off the menu because there weren't enough ingredients on hand, he added.

"I don’t think the public knows and they're expecting the same level of service and everything to be fine and dandy. ...They're asking, 'Why is my food taking so long? Why isn't this in stock?'" Simon said. "This is the tip of the iceberg in regards of where this is all going to go."

Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com. Follow @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.