Feb 14, 2024 - Economy

Extreme weather, inflation change restaurant menus

two women on stage talking

Chef Michelle Bernstein, with Axios' Hope King. Photo: Ledd Villamarzo, EDIN STUDIOS

Inflation and extreme weather are changing what we eat when we eat out.

Why it matters: Diners' demands are not only competing against commingled global challenges but tastes are also being partly driven by them.

Driving the news: "There's a lot of fish and seafood that I don't bring in now from other parts of the country because they're just too expensive," chef and restaurateur Michelle Bernstein told me during Axios' BFD summit in Miami Tuesday.

  • "I don't remember the last time I brought in things like live sea urchins and skate wings, and even foie gras."
  • These luxury dishes were always on her Miami menus "because people expected them. But we find that it's not really necessary. We can get creative with a head of iceberg [lettuce] if we have to."

Extreme weather has limited Bernstein's access to other ingredients too, forcing her to "create with what we have."

  • Chefs globally have been facing similar challenges, including some in Hong Kong and others in Canada, where dishes with squid and sardine have been appearing more frequently as warming oceans push fish like salmon to cooler waters in the poles.

Zoom out: The rapid rise in food prices and labor costs over the past few years has caused restaurants to raise prices by 24% since January 2020, but margins have shrunk.

One way to alleviate the labor shortage, Bernstein said, was through immigration.

  • When culinary school students come to work, they think they're chefs that are "ready to go," she said, so it's harder to find willing workers for all of the other essential jobs around the restaurant.
  • Immigrants account for more than 1 in 5 jobs in the foodservice and restaurant industry, according to recent government data.

The intrigue: The economic need may outweigh the political debate. And that extends down the supply chain to farms and transportation.

  • U.S. trucking companies are already recruiting in other countries, John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, told the Houston Chronicle.

What we're watching: Pressures from higher prices and agriculture supply chain pains are likely to linger.

  • Full-service restaurant employment remains below pre-pandemic levels. And droughts, flooding and other extreme weather, worsened by climate change, continue to uproot agriculture — everything from botanicals used in gin to wheat, tomato and red jalapeño crops.
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