The challenges of supply-chain shortages are again affecting markets in Tahlequah and elsewhere, and customers are beginning to notice its effects.

Grocery stores have come a long way since paper towels, eggs, milk, and bread vanished from shelves in early 2020, though some products are still as readily available as they have been in pre-pandemic times.

Leaders of area stores – such as Reasor’s, Save-A-Lot, and Braum’s – have noted that stores are not at fault for food shortages, and that supply-chain challenges are endemic of the times.

Reasor’s President Jeff Reasor explained that those stores, with several outlets in Northeast Oklahoma, are experiencing shortages, and while COVID is to blame indirectly, the real reason is more complicated.

“There’s plenty of food, but there are not enough workers to man all of those positions, and as a consequence, they can only produce so much,” said Reasor.

Currently, Reasor’s has seen shortages on coffee creamer, chicken, and other meats, but these types of product scarcity are considered by grocers to be “short term.”

“We were really low on chicken, and then all of a sudden, they got caught up, and we’re filled back up to where we were,” said Reasor.

He said a key reason why food availability has been difficult to predict is because there is a shortage of workers. He said fewer truck drivers are on the road, and fewer bakers are in the bakery. While food is being produced, it is not at the capacity of a few years ago.

This is also forcing larger companies like Kellogg’s, Post, Dole, PepsiCo, and others to decide to consolidate food options. For example, a company that may normally produce a cereal, like Frosted Flakes in 12 ounce, 20 ounce, and 36 ounce sizes may only sell boxes in 36 ounces because there are not enough factory workers to make different sizes. Similarly, the variety of Coke products is not where it used to be, even though the core standard flavors are in no shortage.

Currently, there is a shortage of skilled meat cutters, which affects pricing and availability.

“It’s common to have a short-term shortage of bacon, chicken, or pork. We have a specific way of cutting meat. If the meat is not cut exactly how we need it, then there will be more waste,” he said. “If they cut it in the wrong spot, it cuts the profitability for both cuts of meat."

The shortage is also hampering the ability of Reasor’s to build a new store in South Broken Arrow because of a shortage of skilled welders to construct shelving.

Reasor said inflation is also affecting shoppers' experiences at the store.

“Too much demand for too few goods is driving up the prices,” he said.

In previous years, it would cost a truck about $1,500 to ship food to an area warehouse. That number is now close to $5,000.

“That doesn’t make the product go up three times as much, but it may make the product go up 10 percent,” Reasor said.

He added that manufacturers are no longer giving discounts. He said the maker of Brawny paper towels, for example, would sell a package for $7, and Reasor's would sell at retail for around $8. Now, the same company is selling the same product for $10, and Reasor’s resells them for around $11.

Braum’s is also experiencing shortages, particularly in dairy products.

“We’ve been having a hard time with certain dairy products, like half-and-half,” said Rebecca Jenicke, Braum’s store manager.

The store is also struggling to keep Styrofoam containers and other paper products on hand.

“Right now, we don’t even have paper bags to put our lunches in. There’s a shortage of that. We are having to use a smaller size,” she said.

Angie Taylor, Save-A-Lot owner, said they are experiencing brief product shortages, but depending on the day, the store is able to sell what it needs to area consumers. Currently, Save-A-Lot is running short on grapes and pre-made salads.

“There’s been a higher demand for it. We’ve had intermittent shortages,” Taylor said.

To help overcompensate for food shortages, Save-A-Lot is ordering extra.

“People are also sick, so we may get 85 percent of what we order for one item. We preorder stuff. If we can expect this much, then it comes in and you may get part of it. What we usually have to do is, we put up signs to say we were unable to fill this item,” she said.

Save-A-Lot is now selling groceries through Instacart, which will deliver to customers' doorsteps.