Those price hikes aren’t always gouging, but some are throwing blame regardless

In a matter of days, Chef Giuseppe Musso of Michael’s Downtown watched his usual order of 15 dozen eggs go from $29 to $38 to what is now $54—an increase that will be passed along to customers at his restaurant that has been converted to a popup market like many others during the coronavirus pandemic.

Paper products? Same thing: price increase. Ground beef? Up it goes—signs of a tumultuous food market that has had to adjust on the fly as life has been upended by COVID-19.

“The things we buy on a day-to-day basis—the stuff that is contracted like bulk flour—hasn’t changed too much,” Musso said. “But the little stuff? It changes weekly with supply and demand. The first week, the distributors were so desperate to get what they could off their hands but now everyone wants it, so prices go up. With the couple days rain we’ve now had and no one out in the fields, expect them to go up again.”

Responses from customers have varied. While Carl Dene of Michael’s Downtown said their customers send continual notes of gratefulness and appreciation—though some have raised an eyebrow at price hikes—some have experienced outright vitriol, including accusations that the restaurateurs are price gouging.

Long Beach has also doubled-down on efforts to fine markets for illegal price hikes, but authorities were quick to note that not every increase is gouging. An arbitrary hike of more than 10% could be criminal, but it’s perfectly legal for sellers to pass their own costs along to consumers.

“It’s not the distributors price gouging,” said Luis Navarro of Lola’s, The Social List, and Portuguese Bend. “The prices are skyrocketing because of demand. Like ground beef—it’s a super hot commodity right now so prices are increasing significantly.”

In an email sent to sale reps, Jim Jones, a protein advisor for one of the region’s largest distributors, Sysco, warned its sales team to “keep abreast of the changes that may happen very quickly” with regard to ground beef prices.

“Ground beef remains a tight commodity that is trading higher than expected as ground beef has become the new to-go menu item that everyone can use,” the email said. “Sales have increased dramatically over the last few weeks. Retail business has picked up a lot of the business and consumers are taking more product from retail and markets.”

Jones said that Sysco expects the trend to carry for a little longer, with possible drops in the next two weeks, but that any product, from eggs and dairy to fresh vegetables and paper towels, can experience the same fluctuations in this tumultuous market.

“We’re getting hammered with prices increases,” Navarro said, “and there’s really little we can do about it.”

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.