Behind the stone counter, there was a new, higher figure scrawled across the chalkboard menu. It wasn’t Chip Powers’ first choice, but it had to be done.
There was a pig virus, a bird flu and a drought. Gas prices hovered around $3.70 a gallon. Impediments swirled like rain clouds, which fulminated far away from places such as Texas, New Mexico and kernels of the Corn Belt. The summer of 2014 was a tough one for Powers’ State College restaurant, Carvers Deli and Barbecue, which pivots on the success of healthy crops and livestock thousands of miles away, often in the heartland of the country — the very same places then thirsting for a downpour.
He wasn’t alone.
Across the country, choice cuts of beef reached record prices. Over the next 19 months, retail value shot up by almost a dollar, increasing at an average rate of 14.67 cents per business quarter. Last July, retail value reached a peak of $6.15 per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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Even bread was more expensive. The ciabatta rolls used in the restaurant’s popular deli sandwiches shot up in price, Powers said — a price that hadn’t been raised in three years.
“Just coinciding with everything, we did raise our prices slightly for our barbecue beef sandwiches and our dinner plates that use brisket,” Powers said. “And we just took it on the chin until prices came back down.”
But fortunately for small restaurants such as Carvers, beef prices have started to decline after a lengthy climb.
James Dunn, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State, said corn and soybeans — crops used for feed — have seen recent dramatic price decreases, the sloughing off concurring with a rise in the dollar’s value. A stronger dollar means cheaper exports abroad, according to economists, especially in weaker markets. But it also means fewer international exports for the U.S., Dunn said, which places a greater emphasis on the low feed costs and the abating of an about four-year drought period in parts of Texas and the Southwest. Those factors alone have helped bring down costs for wholesalers and, eventually, the vendors themselves.
“I use a lot of brisket and we’re a deli, too, and that definitely affects the bottom line when the price goes up,” Powers said. “But right now the prices are pretty reasonable.”
The summer, which brings graduations, cookouts and the attendant caterings, is looking brighter again.
“Absolutely,” said Brandon Corvin, who owns Doan’s Bones Barbecue in Petersburg and State College. “It’s always been kind of a seasonal thing.”
Now a cultural touchstone, barbecue traces its roots to the 15th century.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Christopher Columbus and Spanish conquistadors discovered tribes on Hispaniola cooking meat in an elongated process, simmering rather than burning the wood. Dubbed “barbacoa” by the Spanish, the slow-cooking style eventually made its way north. The technique lent itself to cooking in bulk, and thus became popular for parties and festivals — perfect for the longer days of summer.
As barbecue’s popularity grew, it withstood the test of time — a crucial component of its character.
But time, which helps give the meat its flavor, also contributes to its caprice in the market.
Beef cattle take longer to raise than pigs or chickens, require larger batches of feed and are spread out among a greater number of individual producers. A catastrophe, such as a drought or disease, can cleave a chasm between supply and demand. As a result, the meat’s price can remain mercurial, and vendors are left to fend for themselves.
Powers, who has only raised prices twice since he founded Carvers with his wife, Barb, in 2010, said he tries to keep costs stable for customers, regardless of what the market is doing. Abstaining from, rather than reflecting, fluctuations has helped the business grow.
“Not making quite as much” when prices rise is difficult, he said, but is better than the alternative of losing customers.
But after everything seemed to go wrong for small vendors just a few years ago, barbecue season is sizzling once again.
“As these cattle numbers go up, it should help the cost at the grocery store or at wholesale markets,” Dunn said. “Where people who sell consumer products, like restaurants, their costs should be coming down accordingly over the next few months.”
Iowa, which is the second largest soybean producer in the U.S. and the country’s largest corn producer, saw soybean prices increase to a record average of $14.13 per bushel and corn prices rise to a record high of $7.13 per bushel in 2013. Three years later, the prices have been cut about in half.
According to the USDA, the Iowa prices of both crops were at their lowest for the month of March since 2007.
“It’s a very complex system,” Dunn said. “When you go to the supermarket and buy 10 items, each of them often has a fairly different story.”
Internationally, fertile corn and soybean production from Brazil and Argentina has also added to the surplus. Coupled with lower gas prices (a national average of $2.39 per gallon, according to GasBuddy) and better weather, the season is off to a strong start.
Corvin said the summer is his busiest time of year. He estimates he does about two to three weddings every weekend, along with corporate events, anniversaries and graduation parties dotting his calendar. Recently, Doan’s catered a 200-person wedding where about 50 pounds of beef were served.
“That’s their day,” Corvin said. “You’ve got to put out good quality for the bride and groom.”
For Powers, barbecue and summer make for a good marriage. Carvers does about five barbecue caterings a week, he said, and goes through about 160 to 200 pounds of brisket during that period.
The restaurant’s chalkboard, meanwhile, has remained — save for the occasional menu item or chalk color — relatively unchanged.
“You just kind of wait it out and see,” Powers said.
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy