By now, empty shelves have grown familiar to supermarket shoppers, as have reports of farmers plowing vegetables back into the soil and dumping milk onto their pastures.

But warnings of a national shortage from Tyson — the meat-processing behemoth that also owns brands like Hillshire Farms, Jimmy Dean, and BallPark hot dogs — and meat-packing rivals like Smithfield and JBS have arguably been the most pronounced. That may be due to Americans’ love of beef, pork, and poultry, the per capita consumption of which was more than 220 pounds in 2019.

One might wonder: What if you skip the grocery store and go to the local butcher shop? Will the shortage affect them? And what about the restaurant suppliers who have recently started selling to the public? What about farmers markets?

We spoke to local butcher shop owners, wholesalers, and farmers to better understand the meat situation.

Demand is up as supply is down

One thing is true across the board for markets of all stripes: Customer demand has surged. As restaurant-goers remain confined, they’ve been buying more food to cook at home.

“We’ve never done this much business,” said Heather Thomason, owner of Primal Supply Meats, a high-end butcher shop based in Brewerytown and South Philly. Pre-pandemic, 45% of Primal Supply’s revenue came from selling to restaurants; today, 100% of revenue is coming from the shop’s meat-subscription program and its web store. Even cuts that used to be a hard sell in the butcher case — beef hearts, chicken livers, oxtail — get snapped up online.

Heather Thomason of Primal Supply Meats uses her favorite knife, a 12-inch chef's knife she calls "Bone Crusher" on Oct. 16, 2019.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Heather Thomason of Primal Supply Meats uses her favorite knife, a 12-inch chef's knife she calls "Bone Crusher" on Oct. 16, 2019.

“We’re sold out all the time. We’re selling everything at full retail, rather than having to wholesale some of it,” Thomason said. She reported hearing the same from industry colleagues. “It’s unprecedented to all of us.”

Meat-centric North Philly wholesaler Ashley Foods pivoted to selling to the public in mid-April. Since then, more than 1,000 people have signed up for home delivery. “It just keeps growing and growing,” said owner Ashley Hanlon.

Hanlon said customers text her pictures of empty meat sections at grocery stores and ask, “Can you help?”

But just as mainstream supermarkets can’t escape coronavirus’ effect on meat’s national supply chain, neither can wholesalers or butcher shops. Outbreaks among employees have forced several processing plants (also known as slaughterhouses) to temporarily close, creating the bottleneck that lead to shortages.

Empty meat shelves at the Acme in the Haddon Commons in Haddon Township March 14, 2020.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Empty meat shelves at the Acme in the Haddon Commons in Haddon Township March 14, 2020.

“Pork has pretty much dried up,” Hanlon said. “It’s been two weeks since we can get pork tenderloins in. Getting shoulders or butts has been difficult. … It’s becoming more and more scarce, [and] more expensive.”

“[Suppliers’] prices have gone up dramatically, sometimes 100%,” said Louis Esposito, owner of Esposito’s Meats in the Italian Market, which recently reopened after a three-week hiatus to establish curbside pickup and delivery protocols.

The shop couldn’t restock everything — Esposito’s daughter Monica said large, economical cuts such as chuck roast that can feed an entire family were in especially short supply. “Those are also the items getting sold to the grocery stores,” she said.

Because the U.S. meatpacking industry is so consolidated, Esposito’s suppliers are often the same suppliers used by Acme, Giant, and other large chains. “If you’re doing some volume, you’re part of that mainstream system,” Louis said. “So we’re all chasing the same short supply.”

A view from inside Esposito's Meat Market on South 9th Street in the Italian Market February 13, 2019.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
A view from inside Esposito's Meat Market on South 9th Street in the Italian Market February 13, 2019.

“Every supplier out there has pretty much … told you you’ll get 40% of what you ordered,” Hanlon said.

The squeeze is felt even at a small outfit like Bucks County’s Blooming Glen Pork and Catering, a sixth-generation business run by the Moyer family. The butcher shop makes its own sausages, bacon, and scrapple in addition to selling fresh cuts of pork.

Coronavirus has prevented the Moyers from opening their barbecue pit for the season, and their pork suppliers — J.F. Martin in Lancaster County and Leidy’s in Souderton — have shorted recent orders, said Lorraine Moyer.

“We just keep reordering and hope that we’re going get what we asked for,” Moyer said. “Sometimes the guys order a little bit more hoping we’ll get what we need.”

Getting meat from farm to table

The best way to circumvent mainstream meat suppliers is to go directly to the source: the farms.

But even farmers don’t have control over the supply chain: They’re constrained by the time it takes to raise animals, and by the limited number of meat processing plants.

Mandy Arrowsmith owns Hillacres Pride farm in Lancaster County. Aside from milk and cheese production, the family sells about 40 beef cattle, 60 pigs, and 4,000 chickens each year via CSA shares and farmers markets, including those in Headhouse Square and Collingswood.

Hillacres Pride builds up a reserve of products over the winter while many farmers markets are dormant, Arrowsmith said, but the stockpile has been dwindling as demand spikes. And the farm’s options for responding are limited.

“I can’t just all of a sudden come up with more beef,” Arrowsmith said. It takes Hillacres two years to raise beef cattle, six to seven months for heritage pigs, and six weeks for chickens to reach their target weight. (They only raise chickens from March through November, when the birds don’t have to expend energy staying warm.)

Even if Hillacres could conjure up more cattle and pigs, they would have to arrange for more dates to bring them to the USDA-inspected slaughterhouse they must use to retail products themselves. Arrowsmith did finagle an extra date for beef recently, but when she tried to arrange for another one, she was told the processor was fully booked through August.

“The dates aren’t available,” she said. “I know that there is definitely going to be people like me who may run out of product more quickly.”

Primal Supply’s supply chain — constructed completely of local and independent farms — faces similar issues. All of its meats are processed at Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, and Thomason schedules an entire year’s worth of dates with them at the beginning of each year.

“In the past few decades, the slaughterhouses have slowly been closing without new ones reopening,” she said. “There’s a couple in the region that all of us work with, but every single one of them is pretty much always at capacity.”

What next?

As Thomason watches meat sell out day after day, she’s contemplated increasing the number of animals Primal Supply promises to buy over a year. But she weighs that against the risk that consumer demand might bottom out when mainstream meat catches up again.

“I don’t really know what’ll happen in a few months. [If] suddenly the pendulum swings and the market gets flooded again and people don’t want this product or they’re not so desperate for our delivery service, I don’t want to end up with all these animals on the ground.”

Animals that are pastured on small farms take more time to raise and cost significantly more than animals raised in pens on factory farms. That means locally sourced meat isn’t for everyone.

Arrowsmith acknowledges the need for more economical alternatives. “I’m not putting down the confinement facilities at all, because that’s the way that animals need to be raised for mass people to be able to afford to eat meat. It’s just the reality of it.”

For the many customers who can’t afford to pay upward of $6 per pound of ground beef or $10-plus for pork chops, there are options (besides eating more fish, beans, or tofu).

At Esposito’s, high-end cuts of beef — tenderloin; rib eye, T-bone, and flat-iron steaks — have become relatively affordable now that restaurant business has slowed. And the butchers there are steering customers to other restaurant cuts they wouldn’t have before: veal cheeks, pork osso buco, Frenched pork chops.

“People that are missing that fine dining experience can recreate it at home,” Louis Esposito said.

And for those who can only be placated by a chuck roast or Smithfield ham, Hanlon has some advice: “Calm down. [The processing plants] are not going to be closed for a long time. They’re going to sanitize. They’re going to open back up.”