Spiking egg prices, caused by avian flu outbreaks that began last year, have left Long Beach food businesses scrambling to find supplies and worried they may have to charge their customers more.

The first known cases of bird flu to hit the U.S. in five years emerged in January 2022 and have so far affected more than 57 million birds in 47 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has led to an ongoing nationwide shortage of eggs, at times causing retailers to limit purchases or to leave shelves bare.

The situation is an added challenge for Long Beach’s Egg Heaven Cafe, which had closed due to the pandemic and just reopened three weeks ago under new ownership.

As customers on Monday morning tucked into omelets and sipped coffee in beige vinyl-upholstered booths, Esperanza Trejo, who helps run the restaurant, said the biggest concern right now is the cost of eggs.

“They’re way too expensive,” she said. The cafe buys eggs locally, and “we have to shop around because some stores don’t even have any.”

A worker cracks eggs into a large pot to be whisked and prepped for omelets and scrambles at Egg Heaven on Fourth Street in Long Beach Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Fanis Pietris, who has owned Pietris Greek Bakery and Restaurant since 2017, told a similar story. Eggs used to fetch about $40 for 15 dozen, last week they went to $95 for the same amount, and now the price is $130, Pietris said — and he has no idea how long the situation may last.

Unfortunately, neither do the experts.

The last major U.S avian flu outbreaks were in 2014 and 2015, and they also sent egg prices soaring, but there are some important differences, said Maurice Pitesky, an associate professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Cooperative Extension.

About seven times more counties around the country have been affected this time around, so “the scope of the outbreak that we’re dealing with right now is basically much larger geographically,” he said.

Also, five or six years ago, the number of infections died down during the warm summer months and didn’t flare back up the following winter, Pitesky said, but the current wave didn’t go away in the spring and summer.

What’s known as highly pathogenic (very contagious) avian influenza is typically spread by wild waterfowl such as ducks and geese. But recently authorities have found the virus in numerous other bird species as well as marine mammals and foxes, so “it’s become much more robust in the species that it’s affecting,” Pitesky said.

When the virus is found in a flock, the fastest way to stop its spread is to euthanize the birds, and it takes time to replace them. Pitesky said young hens are usually about 20 weeks old when they start laying commercial-grade eggs.

Further compounding the flu problem is volatile prices for corn and soybeans, which are used to feed hens, he said.

“I think this is an existential issue for the poultry industry,” Pitesky said. “I don’t think we know when this will end.”

Meanwhile, Long Beach businesses that depend on eggs continue to try to scratch out a living, hoping their patrons won’t fly the coop.

At Joe Jost’s, a nearly century-old pub that sells its popular pickled eggs by the jar, owner Ken Buck has kept prices level but isn’t sure how long that’s sustainable.

“I don’t like raising prices on my customers, but everything’s so expensive now, including beer,” he said. “I’ll try to keep them the same, but there comes a point when you have to consider charging more.”

Rito Garcia finishes preparing three breakfast plates at Egg Heaven in Long Beach Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Trejo at Egg Heaven is also hoping she won’t have to raise prices. She’s worried but trying not to brood about it.

“We’re trying to stay positive, but it’s hard right now,” she said.

Staff writer Tim Grobaty contributed to this report.