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NYC’s Restaurant Wholesalers Are Struggling to Meet Demand as Staffers Fear for Health

With a massive spike in sales from consumers, wholesalers accustomed to selling to restaurants have had to make drastic changes — without the help of extra employees

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When high-end meat wholesaler Piccinini Brothers started selling directly to the public in March, owners Sylvie Vaccari and her husband Paul Vaccari were not expecting customer demand to explode overnight. Initially, the pair was fulfilling 25 to 50 orders per day with the help of one butcher and one delivery driver, spreading news of the new venture through word-of-mouth.

But within 48 hours of launching an updated website and publicly announcing the pivot, the wholesaler — which normally sells to NYC restaurant clients like Daniel Boulud and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill — saw about 1,000 new orders pour in.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Vaccari says. “It was an embarrassment of riches.”

Many reputable NYC restaurant wholesalers flipped to selling their products directly to consumers as restaurant clients across the city shuttered following the state-mandated orders banning dine-in service in mid-March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. And as long lines formed outside grocery stores and online grocery delivery services faltered under the weight of demand, New Yorkers welcomed an alternate way to buy food each week.

Now that wholesalers have stepped in to fill the gap, though, some are struggling to scale up logistics quickly and find enough staffers to meet the new grocery demands in the city. Piccinini Brothers’ Yelp page has been filled with negative reviews after the company started selling straight to the public — with customers complaining about lack of updates on orders and weeks-long delays. It’s become a daunting challenge for the wholesalers to keep up.

In response to the delays, Piccinini Brothers has been offering some customers discounts and adding a bit of extra food to the late orders.

“My phone starts ringing at 7 a.m., and it goes til about 11 p.m. at night,” says Vaccari, who adds that she and her husband have been logging 12 to 13 hour days to try and keep up with the influx of customer orders.

A steak is placed in a cast iron skillet with a few strands of rosemary on either side
Happy Valley Meat Co. has had to adapt to the needs of individual customers as opposed to restaurants
Happy Valley Meat Co.

Happy Valley Meat Co., a meat wholesaler that works with top NYC restaurants like Frenchette and Golden Diner, also saw a massive 5,000 percent spike in website traffic after opening to the public. That immediately created a two-week backlog, down from the initial next-day delivery the company was offering.

One hurdle is that Happy Valley only buys only whole animals, says sales manager Jesse Voremberg, which means their inventory follows how a cow naturally breaks down: heavy on plentiful product like ground beef and tighter on choice cuts like filet mignon and hangar steaks. Happy Valley’s restaurant clients are familiar with the wholesaler’s methods and buy accordingly, but the company is going through another learning curve with the public who may expect easier access to ribeyes and strip steaks.

And normally, the wholesaler will send whole muscle cuts to restaurants for their employees to break down and prep for dishes. Now, “we have to cut most of our product into ready to cook items, and that takes a hell of a lot longer,” Voremberg says.

Nothing can be sold in bulk packages, as it once was. Ground beef that used to go out the door in 10 pound bags is now being sold in one pound bags, and a top round — previously sent whole to the restaurants — now has to be broken down into small cubes of stew meat.

It’s also been hard to find people to work due to health concerns, a problem that restaurants and specialty grocery stores face as well. Before the pandemic, Piccinini Brothers employed about 10 butchers and deployed a fleet of 15 to 20 trucks to make deliveries to clients each day. The company is now down to a skeleton crew and finding it hard to scale back up because some employees don’t feel comfortable coming back to work — whether it’s because they live with elderly family members, or are worried for their own safety. Happy Valley’s Voremberg says that a “significant portion” of their warehouse workers have been out sick. Vaccari and her team have had to call in favors with restaurant clients to find an extra butcher to help prepare orders.

“It’s a very scary time, and if someone doesn’t want to work because they are scared, I can’t judge them for that,” Vaccari says.

A box of whole and cut up oranges in pink and orange colors
Produce wholesaler Natoora initially faced a massive backlog but is now settling into a routine.
Natoora [Official]

Natoora, a produce wholesaler with clients that include Per Se and Estela, also contacted the restaurants it works with and hired a number of former kitchen employees to staff its warehouse, CEO Franco Fubini tells Eater. The company initially struggled to fulfill orders — at one point, delivery wait times ballooned out to a month — but Fubini says wait times are back down to two weeks after the company ramped up its capacity to handle demand over the past ten days.

Other wholesalers aren’t seeing as much of a strain. D’Artagnan, a well-known restaurant wholesaler that already ran a direct-to-consumer business before the pandemic, has seen an increase in demand but has been able to manage because the staff already has experience with the technology and logistics, the company’s president Andy Wertheim tells Eater.

Fish wholesaler F. Rozzo and Sons, which supplies Michelin-starred restaurants like Le Bernardin, has been okay too, in part because it doesn’t do delivery outside of a partnership with Goldbelly. Owner Louis Rozzo, who’s been primarily selling out of a makeshift retail shop inside the company’s Chelsea warehouse, says he’s happy to only do pickup orders to keep a handful of core staffers employed. If the wholesaler started offering delivery, it’d have to institute $50 or $100 order minimums, and then customers would likely be buying and freezing Rozzo’s fish. “It’s a tragedy to freeze it,” Rozzo says. “It goes against my philosophy.”

A display of fish for sale in F. Rozzo and Sons’s new retail location in Chelsea
Salmon and shrimp for sale at F. Rozzo and Sons’ new retail market in Chelsea
Gary He/Eater

For the companies that are getting used to a whole new online system, there are new guidelines in place. Happy Valley instituted stricter daily order limits and is exploring the possibility of having some restaurants act as pickup sites. Piccinini Brothers started accepting orders only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, and the website now alerts customers of delivery delays. A notice posted on Natoora’s website cautions customers that the ordering system was “designed for chefs” and “there will be some quirks” in the process.

Each of the wholesalers are finding steadier footing as the weeks progress. But it’s still not ideal situation: Though there is crushing consumer demand, most companies say that sales are still not on par with what the businesses were making before the virus hit.

“The work itself is not difficult,” Vaccari says. “Once our staff is back and people want to work, it will be a much simpler situation.”

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