The Big Short: As the holidays approach, local businesses struggle to adjust to a shattered global supply chain

Elementary Coffee Co. ‘Topless’ Cold Drink.

Cup, meet the lid.

Or not. The world’s shortage of supply has reduced to the most modest essentials of your friendly, albeit slightly depleted, local business. As the holiday shopping season approaches, watch for imaginative workarounds.

“We had to get really creative,” said Andrea Grove, owner of Elementary Coffee Co. in Harrisburg. “For a long time, we couldn’t get cold cup lids. So, on our Twitter posts, we said, “Yes, we’re going topless, and please be indulgent with us.” People loved it.

Local business owners are the overworked but nimble type. They tend to tell the same story, doing quite well in the first wave of COVID, but improving in the second.

Diane Krulac, owner of Brittle Bark in Mechanicsburg and Cocoa Creek Chocolates in Camp Hill, first called her multitude of suppliers in March 2020.

“Everyone thought we would be fine, but it slowly got worse,” she said. “By far it has been the worst impact this year. “

For Krulac, there are the chocolate slowdowns caused by navigation barriers across borders and the Atlantic Ocean. And then there is the packaging. Krulac boxes contain truffles in quantities of a few to a few dozen. A supplier has been delivering them for years.

“Suddenly he’s out of stock and doesn’t know when he’s going to make them,” Krulac said.

What the hell?

When the nationalistic trends of four or five years ago shifted supply chains from global to national, the US economy had time to adapt, said Fariborz Ghadar, an economist at Penn State Smeal College of Business. Then came the COVID tsunami. Manufacturers have closed or restricted their operations. The clients kept the supplies available to themselves.

Things calmed down, but then COVID returned. The same shortages that plagued computer chips began to haunt stockpiles of boxes, packaging, etc. Plus, aging workers in logistics and other high-risk industries “basically said, ‘Damn, I’m retiring now,'” Ghadar said.

Take the port workers to unload the containers and the truck drivers to transport the goods, and let the traffic jam begin.

“To top it off, the big guys have more power to take the top spot,” said Ghadar. “If you are Amazon, you have priority in the eyes of the manufacturer. If you’re poor Joe and Nancy with a store, you don’t have any priority.

These conglomerates have further compounded the supply chain by pre-ordering for the holiday shopping season. Krulac, for his part, took a supplier’s advice to “order big” this fall.

“It puts you in the front line,” she said. “It’s just the packaging. It’s not even chocolate. I am ordering much earlier in anticipation of the wait, and it has worked great too.

A smelly lid

Grove has built its business on a philosophy of sustainability.

She is looking for high-end, compostable or recyclable take-out supplies. When her usual line of cold mugs, lids, and combos ran out, she found a substitute, at around four times the price. To fill the void, she would order two boxes at a time, “which lasts about a week and a half.”

“Oh, my God, we’re already fighting for funds,” she thought. “It’s going to drive us into the ground. “

In chatting with his team, they agreed to impose a 35-cent mug fee, while encouraging customers to bring reusable mugs because, after all, “COVID doesn’t really spread that way.”

In Linglestown, St. Thomas Roasters also struggles to find matching lids and, in the words of owner Geof Smith, “gosh-darn cups”.

“The customers have been very understanding,” Smith said. “They all understand. Whatever work they do is probably affected. But you want to put a smelly lid on someone’s cup so they don’t knock it over on their knees in the car.

Sourcing coffee has been little of a problem for Smith, but in packaging, food, and shipping he faces one snafu after another. Unsealed packages of gluten-free cookies that had to be returned. Sara Lee runs out of cinnamon rolls. Shipping products mistakenly sent to Florida, turning a two-day delivery time into two weeks.

“And then two shipments later they sent it to Maryland,” he said. He attributes this little “fubar” to untrained newbies called in to fill staff shortages.

And here in the era of store signs declaring: “Due to a shortage of. . . ”Smith posted his own sign, like“ If you stay in the store, please don’t take a cover. We would like to give the covers to people in their cars.

So far, not all small businesses feel the pinch. You can still get your sugar fix with a red velvet or Georgian peach cobbler cupcake in a jar from Alisha Perry, aka That Cupcake Lady. It finds its ingredients online or in local grocery stores and restaurants.

“I am thankful that I am not in this boat,” she said.

Night owls

The search for alternatives, along with the grueling bookkeeping required to avoid price hikes for customers, wastes time that small business owners cannot delegate to their non-existent subordinates.

“It’s a huge waste of energy that’s being spent,” Grove said.

Krulac’s husband wondered why she stayed on the computer until midnight. Her challenge, she said, is finding supplies that mirror those pictured on her website, for online orders. A change of packaging would require new photos. Even the search for a 1 inch red ribbon required finding a supplier with a quality product.

“Invariably, and I’m sure it’s happened to other companies like me, you don’t have a relationship with these suppliers,” she said. “You don’t buy in volume because you don’t know what your volume might be, because you might not be getting your original products from your original employees. “

That’s it for the customers.

“You don’t want to disappoint them,” Krulac said. “They’re also going through this whole pandemic. They want a bit of normalcy. They want a good quality product in a nice box for the price they have always paid. They want everything to be as it was before. We tried to do it and we came pretty close to doing it.

Early risers

Ghadar will come to an end in the spring of 2022, when companies adjust to the challenges of their workforce and ports get cleaned up. But he has advice for 2021 vacation buyers.

“Do your Christmas shopping early and buy whatever is in there,” he said. “If you want something, you better not wait for a price change. If you don’t like that color and want another color, well, that other color just won’t come.

Krulac recently purchased 50 cases of chocolate, saving over $ 1,000 and sparking group thinking to find storage in every nook and cranny. She is now committed to building her arsenal of supplier relationships.

“Absoutely!” she said. “Absolutely! We have a great relationship with several vendors that we’ve never had before. It’s good because we have a backup. Every thing we use, I now have a backup, and it took some time. hours and hours, but that’s okay because I have a backup.

Grove, from cold cups to topless, sees a societal awakening. In this romance, consumers bring their own cups and businesses are imagining incentives for BYO cups and bags.

“Maybe it causes people to plan more about what to do with their day, ideally,” she said. “It’s tough. It’s a fight like everything else. In a world based on single-use products, it’s not easy to change that mindset overnight.

In the meantime, she smiles.

“Now,” she said, “there are shortages of hot cups. “

Learn more
To learn more about the companies in this story, visit the following websites:

Brittle Bark Co.:

Cocoa Creek chocolates:

The Cupcake Lady:

Elementary Coffee Co.:

St. Thomas Roasters:

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About Glenda Wait

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